Monday, October 15, 2007

Atlantic Sun Conference Preview


The Atlantic Sun was expected to be a two-team race between Lipscomb and Belmont last season. However, East Tennessee State put a damper in those plans with its 16-2 record, winning the conference by two games over Belmont. The regular season was never in doubt over the last few weeks. Jacksonville and Lipscomb finished 11-7, but no other team finished above .500. The conference tournament returned to preseason form, though, with Belmont winning the title. Heading into this season, the same top four teams from last season are likely to be in the mix this year. Kennesaw State, North Florida, Florida Gulf Coast, and USC-Upstate are not eligible for postseason play this year.

Favorites: There is no clear-cut favorite heading into the season. East Tennessee State, the defending regular season champions, loses three starters but returns arguably the league’s best player in Courtney Pigram. He is a sensational scorer and is also a very good passer and defender. He had 29 points, 18 assists, and 8 rebounds, and 4 steals in the last year’s regular season finale. Also returning on the perimeter are double-figure scorer Mike Smith and solid distributor Dequan Twilley. Up front, Andrew Reed leads the way for a depleted front line. Kevin Tiggs will push for a starting job. Belmont seems to always be in contention, and this year is no different. Justin Hare and Andy Wicke will be major reasons why. The two guards form one of the best duos in the country, with Hare one of the best all-around players in the conference and Wicke one of the best shooters in the country. Henry Harris also returns in the backcourt. Inside, Matthew Dotson is expected to step up, while Keaton Belcher and Shane Dansby will also see time. Mercer is lurking in the middle-of-the-pack, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Bears make a move towards the top of the standings. The main reason is that they return one of the best sophomores in the country in guard James Florence. He can score in a variety of ways, and is very good at getting to the free-throw line. Completing one of the best duos in the league is forward Shaddean Aaron, one of the better all-around forwards in the conference. UNC-Asheville transfer Michael Ellis is another standout scorer on the wing. Calvin Henry is arguably the best rebounder in the conference, and Sam Dolan and Brian Pfohl are returning starters down low.

Contenders: Lipscomb, like Belmont, has been a perennial title contender for the past couple of seasons. Leading the way for the Bisons is forward Eddie Ard, who will have to become more of a go-to-guy this season despite his 15 points per game average from a season ago. Michael Lusk is a solid point guard and LaKory Daniels was decent last year. Brandon Brown will make an impact as a freshman. Jason Hopkins is physical down low, while Thomas Pfaff and Michael Teller are solid contributors. Jacksonville made a huge improvement last season, going from one to fifteen wins in the span of one season. Ben Smith leads the group of returnees. He is one of the best point guards of the conference. Evan Jefferson will join him in the backcourt. Up front, the Dolphins have one of the better inside duos in the conference in Lehmon Colbert and Marcus Allen. Both are solid scorers and rebounders. Kennesaw State will make some noise despite the fact it can’t make the postseason. The Owls have one of the best forward duos in the conference Shaun Stegall and Ronell Wooten, both all-conference candidates. Jon-Michael Nickerson is an efficient shooter from the floor, while Andre Morgan can score well. Texas Tech transfer Jay Mitchell should make an impact.

Sleepers: Campbell has steadily improved over the past two seasons, going from ten wins in 2002-2005 to fourteen last year. One of the main reasons for the turnaround was freshman Jonathan Rodriguez. He is one of the best players in the conference, and one of the more underrated players in the country on a national level. Ruell Pringle also returns as a starter for the Camels, while Reggie Bishop and Jake Wohlfeil will push for starting jobs in the backcourt. Kyle Vejraska returns up front. Stetson returns several key players, and could be poised for a solid year. The backcourt is the team’s strength, led by Garfield Blair and Kris Thomas. Blair led the team in scoring and rebounding. A.J. Smith is a solid shooter. Up front, J.J. Hirst and Eric Diaz lead a deep group of returnees that also includes Collins Okafor and Tim Lang in the rotation. Gardner-Webb returns four starters from a team that won seven league games a season ago, and could make a move this year. Thomas Sanders is a solid scorer and rebounder inside, and will become more of a go-to-guy this year. Joining him up front are Matt French and Samba Fall, as well as Auryn MacMillian. On the perimeter, Takayo Siddle and Grayson Flittner will likely start.

Rounding out the Pack: North Florida only won one conference game last season, but it should be improved this year. Chris Timberlake and James Grimball form a solid inside-outside tandem, while guards Germaine Sparkes and Aaron Caruthers also return as starters for the Ospreys. Several freshmen and transfers will have to make impacts this season for coach Matt Kilcullen. Florida-Gulf Coast and USC-Upstate are both in their first years of Division-I basketball, although FGCU won 27 games last season in Division-II and return a solid forward in Adam Liddell. USC-Upstate has a solid backcourt in Luke Payne and Daniel Quinlan.

Prediction: There are several teams that have a chance to stake a claim at the top of the conference this season. East Tennessee State and Belmont will likely battle it out for much of the season, but I think Mercer is going to be a team to watch all season. The Bears are not getting much preseason hype, but they have a chance to make some noise this season. I won’t go as far as saying they will win the league, but they are going to be tough. As for the league title, I’m going with the league’s best player in Courtney Pigram and East Tennessee State.

Player of the Year: Courtney Pigram, G, East Tennessee State

All-Conference Team:
G- Courtney Pigram, East Tennessee State
G- James Florence, Mercer
G- Justin Hare, Belmont
F- Jonathan Rodriguez
F- Eddie Ard, Lipscomb

Second Team:
G- Ben Smith, Jacksonville
G- Andy Wicke, Belmont
F- Shaun Stegall, Kennesaw State
F- Shaddean Aaron, Mercer
F- Ronell Wooten, Kennesaw State

Photo Credit: Double-A Zone

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