Do you hear that? It's the popping of stadium popcorn, the bouncing of basketballs on the hardwood, and the swishing of jumpers going through the net. In other words, it is college basketball season! So to prepare you for the upcoming year, VAVEL USA's Ben Anderson, Tyler Bennett, and Peyton Wesner gave their view on which teams and players will thrive during the 2015-2016 Atlantic Sun season.
1. This season the Atlantic Sun has a newcomer many people have heard of: NJIT. How do you see them fairing in their first year?
I had the privilege of covering most of NJIT's unprecedented rise to prominence last year for VAVEL, and was certain they were going to end their independence to join a conference. What surprised myself and many across the country was their choice of a conference. Instead of a conference of close proximity to other schools like the America East or the MAAC, NJIT chose the Atlantic Sun, meaning they will be traveling south for most to all of their games. This may grow tiresome late in the season, ultimately affecting their play. But NJIT is a quality program ready for the limelight. Head coach Jim Engles has a budding superstar in Damon Lynn, a contender for A-Sun Player of the Year. Along with a few new recruits, Lynn will turn this team into a prime competitor in this league.
Last season was a coming out party, of sorts, for the New Jersey Institute of Technology Highlanders. As the lone Independent school in Division I basketball, they made their case for inclusion in a conference all season long, highlighted by a deep run in the CIT and a big road win over the Michigan Wolverines. This season, they return the majority of their scoring from a season ago, including Damon Lynn, Tim Coleman, and Ky Howard. In their first season with a conference to call home, the Highlanders have the talent and experience to make a serious run at the conference title. Mind you two teams from Florida will have something to say about that, but a top-half finish for NJIT is something that can be expected.
Very very well! On December 6, 2014, the New Jersey Institute of Technology Highlanders burst onto the scene with one of the biggest upsets in Division I history as they defeated national ranked Michigan by the score of 72-70 in Ann Arbor. This season, another upset of the same magnitude could occur, but in the NCAA Tournament. Since NJIT, who finished 21-12 last season, has all five of their top scorers returning from the 2015 CollegeInsider.com Tournament semi-finalist squad, "jazzy junior" Damon Lynn (17.5 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 3.7 APG, & 1.8 SPG) and Ky Howard's (10.9 PPG, 5.7 RPG, & 3.9 APG) team should not miss a beat.
2. Newcomer (Freshman or Transfer) of the Year?
Kennesaw State head coach Al Skinner has a new weapon at his disposal from Serbia. Freshman forward Kosta Jankovic, a native of the Serbian capital of Belgrade, is a 6'7" head-spinner that is coming from Renaissance Academy, Altadena, California. The team needs immediate production from their frontcourt, so expect Jankovic to get quality minutes early and often for the Owls.
This one could go a couple of different ways. There are a slew of talented freshmen coming into the conference, and some high-profile transfers entering. In the end, the Newcomer of the Year in the Atlantic Sun will be the Florida Gulf Coast Eagles’ freshman wing Rajon Tucker. With the Eagles losing more pieces from Dunk City, the opportunity is there for Tucker to come in and contribute right away. He’s the type of player who plays hard on every single possession, and is a strong and physical forward who is a strong rebounder on the offensive glass. He possesses the athletic ability and mental toughness to be able to defend all three guard spots well. If he can improve his jump shot and shooting range, this award should be his for the taking.
From St. Benedict's Prep to Central Connecticut State University to Broward College in three years, Kevin Mickle is still looking for a place to call home. In my estimation, Fort Myers soon shall become so as it is the perfect spot. Although Mickle, a six foot, seven inch forward, has not suited up in a single Division I game yet, he almost averaged a double-double as a JUCO prospect last season (13.6 PPG & 9.7 RPG). Therefore, with the following in consideration, one should not be surprised when he posts a terrific statline that makes up for the lost production of Jamail Jones and Bernard Thompson (graduation) at Florida Gulf Coast.
3. After the North Florida Ospreys made their first NCAA Tournament, head coach Matthew Driscoll has by far the hardest non-conference schedule of anyone in the Atlantic Sun. Do you see UNF collecting any victories over power conference opponents?
North Florida will undoubtedly ride with talented sharpshooter and assist-major Dallas Moore to some quality wins, but I doubt the Ospreys will knock off Illinois in the first game. The Illini will host the team in what will be a raucous environment at a 'neutral' location in Springfield, Illinois, instead of Champaign. Likely their biggest non-conference win will be during the Brooklyn Hoops Classic against the Saint Louis Billikens, an offensively challenged team in the midst of a rebuild. Arkansas and VCU lost loads of talent, and North Florida matches up well against them. Now, I want to go against common wisdom and call a stunner: Watch North Florida contend with Louisville. That's an early season matchup against a Cardinals' team that has gone through a tumultuous offseason. Louisville has no more Montrezl Harrell, Terry Rozier, or Wayne Blackshear, so a lot of holes will need filled.
One may remember the afternoon of Saturday, December 6th of last year, when the North Florida Ospreys went on the road and knocked off Purdue in West Lafayette. Enter the 2015-2016 season, and the Ospreys have more experience under their wings, and have some opportunities to score some big wins. They open the season on the road at Illinois, taking on an Illini team that is without star guard Tracy Abrams for the second season in a row. Relying on a new point guard to control the offense may set the Fighting Illini up for an upset loss to open the year. Later in non-conference play, the Ospreys take on a Dayton team that will be without Dyshawn Pierre. Dayton may not be in a “power” conference, but they have played like a power team in recent years. Add in games against Arkansas and VCU, both of whom aren’t the same teams they were last year in terms of talent, and the Ospreys have plenty of opportunities to take home a signature win.
Absolutely, and right out of the gate! Despite North Florida not getting the name recognition as conference rival Florida Gulf Coast, the Ospreys are the team to beat in the Atlantic Sun this year. But, back to the question, UNF will turn heads prior to conference play commencing in January. In fact, I firmly believe Beau Beech, Dallas Moore, and their teammates will start the season 1-0 with a win on a "neutral floor" (Springfield, Illinois, should not be considered neutral) versus Illinois. The Fighting Illini enter this year's campaign already bitten by the injury bug as projected starters Tracy Abrams and Kendrick Nunn will be absent for the season opener (Abrams out for season and Nunn will miss three to four weeks). Aside from taking down Illinois, do not be shocked when the Ospreys "upset" a Bobby Portis-less Arkansas Razorbacks' group for an early Christmas present to the folks in Jacksonville.
4. Atlantic Sun Player of the Year?
Someone has to lead Dunk City back to glory, and that someone will be Julian DeBose, Florida Gulf Coast's leading returning scorer. He's an accurate shot that will only keep improving in Fort Myers. DeBose, a former Rice Owl, learned a lot this offseason at Kansas University after receiving a shocking offer to join KU’s World University Games basketball team. He leads by example, and will hope to bring his team to glory and earn the POTY accolade this season.
Like the Newcomer of the Year award, this one could go a few different directions. With the conference being home to players like Jacksonville’s Kori Babineaux, Florida Gulf Coast’s Julian DeBose, Stetson’s Divine Myles, North Florida’s Beau Beech, NJIT’s Damon Lynn, and a slew of others, there’s so many ways one can go with their selection. In the end, it’s tough to look past the junior Dallas Moore who led the team in scoring as a sophomore last year with 15.8 points per game. Add in 3.2 rebounds per game and a team-high 128 assists (3.7 per game) on the year, and he’s got all the tools. As he gains more experience, he’s only going to get better, and he’ll keep stuffing the statsheet on a nightly basis.
After only two years of collegiate action, North Florida guard Dallas Moore has not only been chosen as an A-Sun First Team selection but the 2013-2014 Freshman of the Year. This season, the six foot, two inch guard will add Atlantic Sun Player of the Year to his resumé. Moore, who is only 47 points away from eclipsing 1,000 in his career, significantly improved in all statistical categories last season, besides free throw percentage and turnovers, after a stellar freshman campaign that included 12.5 points, 2.1 rebounds, and 2.6 assists per game. Expect for his numbers to soar to greater heights as his team's win total follows the trend.
5. The team who receives the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament will be...
These are the real kings of New Jersey basketball! Rutgers and Seton Hall are both losing boatloads of momentum to the Highlanders, and NJIT will use it to dominate the Atlantic Sun this year. North Florida is an exceptional team, but NJIT is extremely balanced and will knock off the Ospreys for the crown.
The Florida Gulf Coast Eagles and the NJIT Highlanders will contend at the top of the standings, but this race is for the North Florida Ospreys to lose. With the talent they have returning in 2015-16, and the chip on their shoulder after losing to Robert Morris in the First Four last season, North Florida will come back with more hunger and drive. With Beech, Moore, Chris Davenport, and Romelo Banks returning as the core of the team, it’s tough to overlook North Florida.
To avoid loneliness in the history books at the University of North Florida, the Ospreys will return to the NCAA Tournament for the second time in school history. With the multitude of playmakers they have, specifically Dallas Moore, Beau Beech (12.9 PPG, 5.7 RPG, & 1.2 SPG), and Chris Davenport (11.3 PPG, 6.5 RPG, & 2.2 APG), it is hard to believe anyone will be able to stop them in their pursuit. Though, the NJIT Highlanders do have enough scoring to hold their own with the Ospreys, the experience from North Florida's 2015 "Big Dance" experience as well as their grueling non-conference slate shall prepare them for the long haul. But what about Dunk City you ask? Without Brett Comer and Thompson, the Eagles will be unable to fly at the same height as the Ospreys.
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