In back to back seasons, Atlantic Sun teams have stunned American and their first round opponent in the NCAA Tournament. After FGCU in 2013, Mercer upended No. 2 Duke last season. But now Mercer and ETSU have bolted for the Southern Conference, leaving the Eagles as the favorite in a slim A-Sun. With young guards leading the way, however, Lipscomb and North Florida are both nipping at Joe Dooley's heels.
1. Florida Gulf Coast Eagles
Last year: 22-13 (14-4), 1st, NIT
Departures: Chase Fieler (13.9 ppg), Eric McKnight (6.9 ppg), Dajuan Graf (4.9 ppg)
Key Returners: Brett Comer (13.7 ppg), Bernard Thompson (15.1 ppg), Jamail Jones (8.6 ppg)
After capturing last year's Atlantic Sun regular season title, FGCU returns as the heavy favorite in the A-Sun this season. Brett Comer and Bernard Thompson, two preseason all-conference selections, form one of the top back courts in mid-major basketball. Comer, the NCAA's active career assist leader, has added a developing three point shot to his repertoire while Thompson continues to impress coming off the ball and knocking down shots. Fellow senior Jamail Jones ended last season with a string of strong performances and will look to continue that to start the year.
Meanwhile, the Eagles suffer the departures of big men Chase Fieler and Eric McKnight. The former graduated as the program's leader in field goals made and rebounds, and his versatility from the inside and out will be poorly missed. McKnight, on the other hand, left the school and after the SEC denied his move to Tennessee, ended up at Long Beach State. Stepping in are a plethora of fresh faces in Marc-Eddy Norelia (Tulane), Demetris Morant (UNLV), and Eric Moeller (College of Central Florida). Former Georgia Tech transfer Nate Hicks is recovering from an ACL tear suffered against Florida State in the final game of last season.
Dunk City has the talent and experience to return to the Big Dance once again but Lipscomb and North Florida, two rising programs, pose major threats to the Eagles' senior laden team.
Last year: 15-15 (10-8), 6th, A-Sun quarterfinals
Departures: Khion Sankey (7.1 ppg), Carter Sanderson (5.3 ppg), Cam Miller (.7 ppg)
Key Returners: Martin Smith (15.6 ppg), J.C. Hampton (14.5 ppg), Malcolm Smith (13.8 ppg)
The Bison are headed into Casey Alexander's 2nd season at the helm in Nashville and things are trending upward. The roster returns their top three leading scorers in Martin Smith, Malcolm Smith, and J.C. Hampton. The latter has one year of collegiate experience under his belt after logging 31 minutes per game his freshman year. Hampton and Martin have proven to be deadly three point threats and have kept opposing defenses honest. Malcolm, on the other hand, attacks and can get to the rim with ease.
While Lipscomb's offense is quite potent, the problem has been stopping opponents. The Bison ranked 2nd to last in the Atlantic Sun in scoring defense (78.5 ppg), as well as rebounding margin (-4.4). If they can tighten up on the defensive end and make up for their lack of size on the glass, Casey Alexander's team will be giving FGCU everything they can handle
Last year: 16-16 (10-8), 5th, A-Sun quarterfinals
Departures: Travis Wallace (12.3 ppg), Charles McRoy (7.3 ppg), Sean Brennan (2.8 ppg)
Key Returners: Dallas Moore (12.5 ppg), Beau Beech (10.3 ppg), Chris Davenport (7.7 ppg)
Despite losing Travis Wallace, one of only four UNF players to finish their career with over 1000 points and 500 rebounds, the Ospreys should land in the top half of the Atlantic Sun this season. In fact, North Florida even landed a coach's first place vote in the preseason poll. And that unnamed coach has good reason for that selection. A pair of sophomores, in Dallas Moore and Beau Beech, can light it up from beyond the arc and will likely carry the scoring load. They will get some help from three point land as former UL-Monroe sharpshooter Trent Mackey becomes available after a redshirt year. Chris Davenport will also step into a bigger front court role with the departure of Wallace. But imperative to UNF's success will be limiting sloppy play; they ranked dead last in turnover margin in the A-Sun last year, at -4.16.
4. Northern Kentucky Norse
Last year: 9-21 (5-13), 8th,
Departures: Jack Flournoy (4.4 ppg)
Key Returners: Jordan Jackson (13.5 ppg), Tyler White (10.8 ppg), Jalen Billups (9.6 ppg)
Dave Bezold's team is going under the radar but don't let that fool you. The Norse return 93% of their scoring from last season and will certainly build off their nine win season. Chad Jackson, who averaged 10.1 ppg his junior year, is returning after making an interesting choice to redshirt last season and will rejoin a crowded but talented back court. But with no players on the roster over 6-foot-7, Northern Kentucky's slew of guards must continue to chip in on the glass to help Jalen Billups - especially in the Atlantic Sun Tournament. Yep, that's right. The Norse, still progressing through Division I reclassification, are eligible for the A-Sun tournament. Should NKU win the A-Sun title, however, the team they defeat in the championship will be headed to the Big Dance.
5. Kennesaw State Owls
Last year: 6-25 (3-15), 10th
Departures: Myles Hamilton (6.2 ppg), Andrew Osemhen (3.2 ppg), Jordan Montgomery (1.1 ppg), Kris Drees (1.0 ppg)
Key Returners: Delbert Love (12.6 ppg), Orlando Coleman (9.7 ppg), Nigel Pruitt (7.1 ppg)
First year head coach Jimmy Lallathin provides a much needed fresh of breath air to the Owls program (ignore that one game suspension to start his tenure), after Lewis Preston and Kennesaw State made a 'mutual' decision to part ways. After averaging 12.6 ppg last season, it looks as if Delbert Love will be taking on more of a true point guard role with increased depth at the guard positions. Orlando Coleman has worked to extend his range and will continue to man the boards. Headlining a talented group is Memphis transfer Damien Wilson, a versatile 6-foot-7 wing with freak athleticism. The Owls have all the parts, now it's just time to piece it together.
Last year: 19-15 (11-7), 3rd, CIT 1st Round
Departures: Torrey Craig (16.7 ppg), Ricardo Glenn (13.4 ppg), Jodd Maxey (8.8 ppg), Babatunde Olumuyiwa (2.8 ppg)
Key Returners: Ty Greene (14.3 ppg)
The stars seemed to have aligned prior to last season for the Spartans, with the trio of Craig, Glenn, and Greene ready for an NCAA appearance. But Upstate couldn't get over the hump and are likely facing a rebuilding year. It is unseen whether Ty Greene can burden a bigger scoring role without Craig on the wing and Glenn on the inside. That said, the Spartans have an impressive class, and Michael Buchanan looks primed to step right in as the next dominant big man in Spartanburg.
Last year: 12-18 (8-10), 7th, A-Sun quarterfinals
Departures: Jarvis Haywood (16.6 ppg), Keith McDougald (12.8 ppg), Vince Martin (9.9 ppg), Javon Dawson (9.1 ppg), RJ Slawson (8.3 ppg), Kodario Fleming (5.6 ppg)
Key Returners: J.R. Holder (6.6 ppg), Marcel White (4.9 ppg), Jeremy Bogus (2.3 ppg)
The Tony Jasick era is set to begin in Jacksonville. The Hugh Durham National Coach of the Year doesn't have a lot of proven players to work with, however. The majority of the Dolphins' roster graduated or transferred after the firing of head coach Cliff Warren. They are a bit of a wildcard but Jasick will have the scrambled group of ex-JUCO players headed up in the standings within in a few years.
Last year: 7-24, (5-13), 9th, A-Sun quarterfinals
Departures: Willie Green (13.5 ppg), Raymone Andrews (9.0 ppg), Aaron Graham (7.8 ppg), Hunter Miller (4.8 ppg), Raekwon Harney (2.8 ppg), Glenn Baral (2.4 ppg)
Key Returners: Kentwan Smith (9.4 ppg), Brian Pegg (8.3 ppg)
The Corey Williams led Hatters are one of the younger teams in the league, but one with tons of promise. Smith and Pegg need to step into bigger scoring roles after Stetson ranked last in the Atlantic Sun in scoring last season, at 61.8 ppg. They have quite a few underclassman who could make a statement this season.