Before they left the conference for the greener pastures of Division I-A and Conference USA, Central Florida won the 2004 and 2005 Atlantic Sun titles and scared the bejeezus out of two Big East opponents in the first round. With UCF's departure, the league's power center shifted north to Tennessee, where Belmont claimed three consecutive tourney bids, almost knocking Duke out in their 2008 appearance, before East Tennessee State made it last season. The Bucs gave Pittsburgh, the team UCF gave a game in '04, a substantial scare before bowing out at the first hurdle.
Now the power of the league again looks like it will shift to the Sunshine State. Jacksonville, last season's regular season champions who have lost in the A-Sun final two straight times, is the odds on favorite this time around. The league's Tennessee powers will again provide the bulk of the challenge for the Dolphins, though Lipscomb should better neighboring Belmont's performance this time around. But JU will also be challenged by two long moribund programs, Mercer and Campbell.
This offseason, the Camels actually announced that they'll be leaving the conference to return to the Big South, effective with the 2011-12 academic year. Barring any further changes, that means that the league will feature 10 tournament-eligible teams that year. Kennesaw State, the 2004 Division II National Champion, and North Florida are postseason eligible for the first time this season. However, Florida Gulf Coast and South Carolina Upstate have two more years left in their transition period.
More on the conference's teams, both postseason eligible and ineligible, after the jump.
Before we look at 2009-10, here's a look at how the Atlantic Sun standings looked at the end of the 2008-09 regular season.
Atlantic Sun Conference Standings
(updated 3.24.2009 at 12:09 AM EDT)
Now here are my picks for the upcoming season, presented in reverse order. However, I'll start with the two A-Sun teams are ineligible for the postseason.
Florida Gulf Coast (last NCAA: None) Dave Balza's team continues its trip through transitional purgatory with four returning starters, led by 6-1 guard Reed Baker (13.4 ppg).
South Carolina Upstate (last NCAA: None) Even though the Spartans remain ineligible for the A-Sun crown, they could play spoiler, as they won 8 league contests last season. The task for Eddie Payne's squad will be made more difficult with the departure of leading scorer Bobby Davis (14.8 ppg). The Spartans two best returnees are the Mutt and Jeff of the conference, 7-3 center Nick Schneiders (9.5 ppg, 6.1 rpg) and 5-9 guard Josh Chavis (8.3 ppg).
North Florida (last NCAA: None) Matthew Driscoll takes over an Osprey program that was absolutely dreadful under previous coach Matt Kilcullen. In their final transitional year, UNF managed to win two road games (Furman and Stetson). Those represent those only road success the Ospreys had tasted in four seasons. (They had only 14 Division I wins in that span.) Progress will be slow for North Florida, who have four returning starters (a theme in this league this season), led by guards Eni Cuka (13.2 ppg) and Stan Januska (8.9 ppg, 4.4 rpg).
Stetson (last NCAA: None) Derek Waugh's squad lost three starters from a team that should've performed much better last season. Instead of building on their third place finish in 2007-'08, the Hatters slipped to seventh last time around. It's hard to see how Stetson will improve after guard Garfield Blair (17.3 ppg, 7.7 rpg) graduated. However, point guard A.J. Smith (12.6 ppg, 3.8 apg) is back, as is 6-5 forward Sheldon Oliver (5.6 ppg, 5 rpg). Waugh will have to get a lot out of his newcomers, as guard Mark Lohuis was the only returning reserve who managed more than 2 ppg last year (5.0 ppg). It looks like it will be another long season in DeLand.
Kennesaw State (last NCAA: None) Tony Ingle's team is finally postseason eligible and they could spring some surprises, as the Owls bring back all five starters, three of whom were double-figure performers a year ago--G Kelvin McConnell (11.9 ppg), 6-6 F Jon-Michael Nickerson (10.1 ppg, along with 5.5 rpg), and 6-3 G Kurtis Woods (10.5 ppg). PG Spencer Dixon (7.4 ppg, 2.7 apg) will run the offense, while 6-7 F Jonathan Whipple, another returning starter (4.9 ppg, 3.3 rpg), 6-6 bench performer Zadrian Gibson (4 ppg, 4.1 rpg) and 6-9 Auburn transfer Matt Heramb will be expected to improve KSU's inside play.
Belmont (last NCAA: 2008) The Bruins are looking for their fourth title in five seasons, but they'll have to do it without four starters who averaged in double-figures last season: guards Alex Renfroe (16.2 ppg) and Andy Wicke (11.7 ppg), forward Matthew Dotson (12.2 ppg, 4.8 rpg), and swingman Shane Dansby (10.3 ppg, 4.3 rpg). In fact, Rick Byrd's team only returns two players who averaged more than 3.5 points per contest last year, G/F Jon House (8.3 ppg) and forward Keaton Belcher (7.1 ppg). The good news for Belmont is that 6-5 F Jordan Campbell returns after missing most of last year with an injury. He led the Bruins in steals and blocks and was second in rebounding during the 2007-08 championship campaign.
Campbell (last NCAA: 1992) The Camels hope to be a thorn in the side of the A-Sun during their last two years in the league. They have an excellent shot to contend this year, as they return all five starters and their key reserves from the team that earned the program's first winning conference mark since the turn of the century. 6-5 forward Jonathan Rodriguez is a threat for league honors this year after a year where he averaged nearly 16 points and over 8 boards a game. Six others averaged more than 5 points per contest, led by guard Lorne Merthie (9.5 ppg), last year's conference Freshman of the Year. Campbell will have to pack more scoring punch to truly contend, however.
East Tennessee State (last NCAA: 2009) Murry Bartow's Bucs will sorely miss Kevin Tiggs, who averaged over 21 points per contest last year, Courtney Pigram (17.6 ppg), and Greg Hamlin (5 ppg, 5 rpg), but senior Mike Smith (15.7 ppg, 7.7 rpg) and sophomore Isiah Brown (4.7 ppg, 4.6 rpg) do return from last year's auto bid winners. The reserves, none of whom averaged more than 4.4 points per contest, will have to step up for the team to repeat. The schedule will be a challenge as the Bucs visit Arkansas and Louisville as part of the Hall of Fame Classic, UAB, and Tennessee. They also face Southern Conference finalists Chattanooga and College of Charleston and OVC favorites Morehead State and Murray State.
Mercer (last NCAA: 1985) Like just about everyone else in the A-Sun, head coach Bob Hoffman returns a solid core of players. The Bears bring back four starters from last year, as they attempt to have back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in 15 years. Mercer's chances begin and end with 6-1 senior guard James Florence, who is the only active player in the country to average 20 or more points per game in conference play over each of the last three seasons. He's joined in the backcourt by E.J. Kusnyer, who averaged 10.5 points per game last year. Inside, 6-8 senior Daniel Emerson averaged a double-double last year, scoring nearly 14 a game while grabbing nearly 11 boards. Hoffman also gains the services of 6-2 guard and 6-6 forward Brandon Moore, two junior college transfers who were teammates at Wallace State Community College in Alabama.
Lipscomb (last NCAA: None) Scott Sanderson's squad, which always seems to be in the conversation in the A-Sun, looks to break through for their first NCAA bid this time around. However, next year could really be the Bison's year, as their four returning starters are all juniors. 6-9 Adnan Hodzic is the best post player in the conference (17.1 ppg, 7.1 rpg) and Brandon Brown is another force inside (9.1 ppg, 5.8 rpg). In the backcourt, Sanderson lost Michael Lusk (8.6 ppg), but picks up George Washington transfer Johnny Lee. He graduated in three years and decided to head back to Nashville to conclude his career. Lee will join the talented Josh Slater (11 ppg, 4.7 rpg) and Michael Teller (8.3 ppg, 5 rpg) to form a formidable unit that will give the rest of the conference fits.
Jacksonville (last NCAA: 1986) The Dolphins return four starters from the team that won last year's regular season crown by a game over ETSU and Belmont, but got blasted by the Bucs in the game that really mattered. 6-7 forward Marcus Allen (10 ppg, 6.7 rpg) will be missed, but senior Lehmon Colbert (11.8 ppg, 6.2 rpg) and junior Ayron Hardy (10.1 ppg, 5.3 rpg) are two formidable frontcourt players. Ben Smith, another senior, will lead the team in the backcourt. Smith averaged almost 17 points a game while dishing out 4 assists and forcing 2 steals per game. The schedule will be tough, as the Dolphins "host" Florida at the Veterans Memorial Arena this season, while they travel to South Carolina, Florida State, and California.
So, I expect the Dolphins to break through and claim the Atlantic Sun's auto bid this season. They'll appear in my 2009-10 Final Preseason Bracket, which I will release on November 9.
To wrap up this preview, here is my preseason All-Atlantic Sun team, featuring the best returning players from last season.
Preseason All-Atlantic Sun Team
Player of the Year: James Florence, 6-1 G, Sr. (Mercer)
Remainder of the Team
Adnan Hodzic, 6-9 C, Jr. (Lipscomb)
Jonathan Rodriguez, 6-5 F, Sr. (Campbell)
Ben Smith, 5-10 G, Sr. (Jacksonville)
Mike Smith, 6-6 G, Sr. (East Tennessee State)