When Florida Gulf Coast defeated Mercer in the A-Sun title tilt, many assumed that would be the high-water mark for the Eagles during the 2012-13 season, but they managed to make one of the most improbable Cinderella runs in recent NCAA Tournament memory as a 15th seed by defeating Georgetown (78-68) and San Diego State (81-71) before finally falling in the Sweet 16 to Florida.
Although Andy Enfield parlayed his late-season success with FGCU into the head coaching gig at USC, the Eagles return plenty of talent and remain the league favorite. Mercer, which has won at least 24 games in back-to-back campaigns, also figures to be in the mix for its first-ever NCAA Tournament berth.
USC Upstate has been within striking distance of the conference championship the last few seasons, but it went a combined 0-5 against FGCU and Mercer last season, proving it is not yet ready to join the league's upper-echelon. Jacksonville finished 9-9 in the conference a season ago and is a dark horse contender for the title this time around thanks to the return of star guard Keith McDougald. North Florida had a down campaign in 2012-13, but is just two years removed from an A-Sun championship game appearance.
Stetson surprised many in the league last season by finishing third at 11-7, but it will be hard-pressed to repeat that success with the loss of several key players. East Tennessee State made three straight postseason appearances from 2009-11, but has seen a decrease in victories in three straight seasons. Northern Kentucky has room for optimism after closing out last season with seven wins in its final 12 contests.
The lower rungs of conference ladder belong to Lipscomb, which showed promise with seven conference wins, but went just 12-18 overall, and Kennesaw State, which was one of the nation's most futile teams last season at just 3-27.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Florida Gulf Coast
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. Florida Gulf Coast, 2. Mercer, 3. USC Upstate, 4. Jacksonville, 5. North Florida, 6. Stetson, 7. East Tennessee State, 8. Northern Kentucky, 9. Lipscomb, 10. Kennesaw State
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:
FLORIDA GULF COAST: Expecting another trip to the Sweet 16 may be setting the bar too high for first-year head coach Joe Dooley, but with an experienced, talented lineup back for another go, the Eagles should be able to approach their 2012-13 record (26-11, 13-5 A-Sun). They lost their top scorer in Sherwood Brown (15.5 ppg), but the other four starters return, with Bernard Thompson (14.3 ppg) expected to take over as the club's primary scorer. Brett Comer (8.0 ppg) ranked 17th in the nation in assists with 6.3 per game, and his play ramped up during the Big Dance with 31 dishes in three games. Chase Fieler (12.1 ppg) made 56.3 percent of his field goal attempts a season ago and was an across-the-board contributor with 5.4 rpg, 1.3 bpg, 1.1 spg and 34 3-pointers. Eric McKnight (6.5 ppg, 1.3 bpg) started 34 games and should see an increase in playing time in the frontcourt with Brown gone.
MERCER: The Bears were crowned the A-Sun regular-season champions for the first time in school history last year, going 14-4 in the league, but they lost in the conference tournament championship game to FGCU, 88-75. The strong campaign for Bob Hoffman's bunch ended with a berth to the NIT, where it defeated Tennessee in the first round, 75-67. After great showings in back-to- back years, Mercer expects to be in the mix once again with the return of four starters, all seniors. Langston Hall runs the show and was one of the conference's best point guard a season ago, tallying 11.3 points and 5.0 assists per game. Jakob Gollon (8.6 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 2.4 apg) and Daniel Coursey (7.5 ppg, 3.8 rpg) patrol the paint, as does 6-foot-11 Monty Brown (4.3 ppg) coming off the bench. Bud Thomas (7.6 ppg) does much of his damage from beyond the arc, although he'd like to improve upon last year's 3-point percentage (.324).
USC UPSTATE: After going 21-13 during the 2011-12 campaign and earning an invite to the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament, the Spartans endured a setback last season with a 16-17 record, including a 9-9 mark in conference. There's plenty of room for optimism in Spartanburg this fall, however, as they retain their entire starting five, led by the league's reigning scoring champion Torrey Craig (17.2 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 1.0 spg). Joining Craig in the frontcourt is Ricardo Glenn (10.5 ppg, 8.1 rpg) and Jodd Maxey (7.7 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 1.6 bpg), and few teams in the A-Sun can match USC Upstate's physicality down low. At guard, Ty Greene (12.6 ppg) drained 76 3-pointers last year, just two behind Craig for the team-lead. Mario Blessing made 25 starts, but he's a virtual non-factor on the scoreboard after averaging just 3.5 points per game on 36.6 percent field goal shooting last season.
JACKSONVILLE: Although Cliff Warren's squad was just 14-18 overall last year, the Dolphins were still able to exceed most expectations by finishing fourth in the league at 9-9, but it endured an early exit from the conference tournament at the hands of USC Upstate in the quarterfinals (76-62). The excitement is palpable for Jacksonville this season, as it has one of the A- Sun's youngest squads, but in its case, youth does not mean inexperience. Kordario Fleming (7.6 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 1.0 spg) and Jarvis Haywood (11.5 ppg, 4.3 rpg) were both named to the conference's All-Freshman team last season, and should find even more success with a year of seasoning under their belts. Keith McDougald is the veteran leader of the crew. The senior put up 13.1 points per game in 2012-13, which bumped up to 15.4 ppg in conference matchups. Five freshmen join the fold hoping to make a similar impact as Fleming and Haywood did last season, including 6-foot-9 center Josh Murray.
NORTH FLORIDA: The Ospreys advanced all the way to the conference championship game in 2011-12, but they took a step backward last season by going just 13-19 overall and 8-10 in the league with a quarterfinal-round loss to FGCU in the A-Sun Tournament (73-63). Matthew Driscoll, who has logged just an 83-149 record in eight seasons at the helm, will have difficulty improving upon a disappointing campaign after the loss of eight players, including First Team All-Atlantic Sun guard Parker Smith (16.3 ppg). Without Smith, Travis Wallace (14.2 ppg) should be able to shoulder most of the scoring load thanks to his outstanding .577 field goal percentage. Beau Beech (7.9 ppg) and Charles McRoy (6.1 ppg) are also accustomed to regular minutes. Of the eight newcomers, junior college transfer Jalen Nesbitt is expected to have the biggest impact early on after averaging 14.0 points and 7.4 rebounds per game at Spartanburg Methodist College in 2012-13.
STETSON: The Hatters were one of the conference's biggest surprises last season, finishing 15-16 overall and in third place in the A-Sun at 11-7, but they suffered one of the league's largest turnovers in the offseason. They lost three of their top four scorers, including two of the conference's best from 2012-13 in Adam Pegg (15.7 ppg) and Chris Perez (15.1 ppg). Aaron Graham (11.2 ppg) was utilized mostly as the sixth-man a year ago and will likely be thrust into the starting lineup as a senior. As the go-to guy at the offensive end, Graham will certainly need to improve upon the lackluster field goal percentage (.359) he put forth a year ago. Also returning is Willie Green (8.3 ppg, 6.6 rpg), who can be a force in the frontcourt, and Hunter Miller (3.4 ppg, 2.8 apg), who started 23 games last season. This will mark the first season as head coach for Corey Williams, formerly an assistant at Florida State.
EAST TENNESSEE STATE: The Buccaneers have a storied history in the lower ranks of Division I as a nine-time qualifier for the NCAA Tournament, but things have been trending downward in recent years, culminating in an uncharacteristically disappointing 2012-13 campaign (10-22, 8-10 A-Sun). Things are looking up in Murry Bartow's 11th year as head coach, however, as the squad returns eight players, including five with extensive starting experience. Lester Williams had an outstanding freshman campaign (13.0 ppg, 5.3 rpg) and will be expected to be the go-to scorer with the loss of Jarvis Jones (16.0 ppg). Hunter Harris (8.1 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 0.9 bpg) brings a sturdy presence to the frontcourt, and Rashawn Rembert (8.9 ppg) is a threat from the outside with 58 3-pointers on 39.7 percent long-range accuracy.
NORTHERN KENTUCKY: In their first season in Division I, the Norse exceeded all expectations by finishing 11-16 overall with a respectable fifth-place showing in the league (9-9). Even though NKU showed great improvement last season, it will need to rebuild as it returns just one starter in Jalen Billups, who averaged 10.3 points and 5.7 rebounds per game in just seven contests in 2012-13. Several players will be expected to step up their production with increased minutes, including Tyler White (6.0 ppg) and Todd Johnson (2.8 ppg) in the backcourt, and Jack Flournoy (3.9 ppg) at forward. Of the seven newcomers, junior college transfer Jordan Jackson seems most ready to produce right away after averaging 14.9 points and 5.9 rebounds per game at Williston State last year.
LIPSCOMB: A 12-18 campaign and a 7-11 mark in the conference in 2012-13 was the final straw for Scott Sanderson, who resigned from his post after serving as head coach of the Bisons for 14 seasons. Casey Alexander, the head coach at Stetson the past three years, takes over a squad that returns three starters, but will be without top performers Deonte Alexander (13.7 ppg) and Stephen Hurt (11.5 ppg, 7.8 rpg). Twin brothers Martin Smith (11.2 ppg, 4.7 rpg) and Malcolm Smith (11.1 ppg, 4.8 rpg) will be team's foundation in their junior years. Khion Shakey (8.3 ppg, 7.0 rpg) joins the Smith brothers in the frontcourt to give Lipscomb an impressive trio of forwards. The backcourt remains the biggest question mark, with J.C. Hampton (6.3 ppg in four games) and Carter Sanderson (5.5 ppg) largely unproven.
KENNESAW STATE: The Owls were again the punching bag of the A-Sun last season, the team going just 2-16 in the league with a mere three victories overall, and the squad has captured just six wins in Lewis Preston's three-year tenure as head coach. Kennesaw State will be without leading scorer Markeith Cummings (16.5 ppg) this season, but there's still a few key pieces in place to give the team hope for improvement. Delbert Love averaged 12.2 points per game last season, but he shot just 35 percent from the field and had nearly as many turnovers (80) as assists (84). Myles Hamilton (5.8 ppg, 1.3 spg) and Nigel Pruitt (5.1 ppg) also bring starting experience to the table. Among the newcomers, junior college transfers Tanner Qozniak and Charlie Byers are expected to play right away in the backcourt, while 6-foot-11 Drew McGhee has transferred in from Miami-Ohio and will be eligible this season.