By Kevin Sweeney
The first conference to deal with realignment this offseason, the A-Sun adds two programs and subtracts one for 2018-19. North Alabama begins its time in Division 1 this year, in the standard 4-year process in which they won’t be eligible for postseason play. Liberty comes over from the Big South, likely a temporary home for the Flames while they await a FBS home for their now-FBS-Independent football team. For the short term, adding Liberty brings another strong basketball program into the A-Sun, and the Flames should contend for a league title in year one. Departing for the Big South is USC Upstate, leaving the A-Sun with 9 teams for now.
Casey Alexander’s club brings back its top 6 scorers from a 23-win club that made the NCAA Tournament last season. Garrison Matthews is the conference’s best player, a do-everything wing who can really shoot the ball and is perfect for the Bisons’ up-tempo offense. Point guard Kenny Cooper is a disruptor on defense and gets to the rim well offensively, and the Bisons sport a high-level mid-major frontcourt with Rob Marberry and Eli Pepper. Coming off the program’s first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance, this program is definitely one on the rise.
As I wrote earlier, Liberty has an excellent chance to win the A-Sun in their first season. Perhaps the polar opposite to Lipscomb’s up-tempo system, Ritchie McKay’s club deploys a Virginia-esque Pack Line defense helped the Flames rank 6th nationally in scoring defense last season. From that squad returns 7 of their top 8 scorers, including hyper-efficient big man Scottie James and playmaking guard Lovell Cabbil. They also add an intriguing grad transfer in D3 product Keenan Gumbs, who averaged 21 points, 7 rebounds, and 3 assists per game at Schreiner University last season. He might be the piece that puts the Flames over the top.
#3. Florida Gulf Coast
Joe Dooley left Fort Myers for East Carolina this offseason after years of sniffing around other jobs. His replacement is a capable one, his former lead assistant Michael Fly. Fly inherits a roster that departs 3 very important players in Brandon Goodwin, Zach Johnson, and Christian Terrell, but he adds a trio of high-impact transfers in Haanif Cheatham (Marquette), Troy Baxter (UNLV), and Schadrac Casimir (Iona). Cheatham is the biggest coup, a clear high-major talent who averaged close to 10 points per game throughout his time at Marquette. He’ll step into a primary scoring role, and will be surrounded with some high-level shooters in Casimir, Dino Mercurius, and JUCO transfer Decardo Day. With talent in tow and a smooth coaching transition thanks to the in-house hire, FGCU should be in good shape to contend in 2018-19.
#4. Jacksonville– DARK HORSE
The Dolphins could take a big leap forward in 2018-19 after a solid 2017-18 campaign. Bruising 4-man Jace Hogan should have another big season, and sophomores JD Notae and Jalyn Hinton both return after big-time rookie campaigns. Add in a double-digit scorer in Bethune-Cookman transfer Quinton Forrest and a former Ohio State big man in Dave Bell, and the Dophins have a starting 5 that projects favorably against any of the league’s elite clubs. Tony Jasick build Fort Wayne into a 25-game winner, and could be on the path to similar success at Jacksonville.
#5. North Florida
The Ospreys play fast and score a ton of points, but they struggle defensively because of it. However, last season was especially bad, ranking 349th out of 351 in scoring defense and 345th in adjusted defense on KenPom. Part of that can be attributed to youth (UNF’s top 6 scorers were freshmen or sophomores, and all return), but part is systemic. Even just slight improvement on defense would help make the Ospreys a legit contender, as they have an excellent backcourt headed up by pure passer Ivan Gandia-Rosa. With no seniors on this club, Matt Driscoll essentially enters a two-year title-contending window. Can he bring one home?
The loss of Anthony Tarke to UTEP is a killer for the Highlanders’ hopes of contending for an A-Sun title, but a solid core still remains. Abdul Lewis is a beast on the glass, and Brian Kennedy surrounds him with a backcourt unit that can really shoot the ball. One of those guards has to step up as a scorer in Tarke’s place, and that guy might be ShawnDale Jones, a sophomore from Pittsburgh who showed flashes as a freshman.
#7. Kennesaw State
The Al Skinner experiment has gone less than swimmingly so far at KSU, as the Owls have yet to finish above .500. This doesn’t look like the year it will change either, as point-per-shot killer Nick Masterson graduates and talented wing scorer James Scott both depart. Tyler Hooker has the talent to step into a bigger role offensively, but beyond him there’s no clear scoring options. This may be a job that opens up this offseason.
#8. North Alabama
The jump to D1 doesn’t come at a great time for the UNA hoops program, as the Lions will be breaking in a new coach after a 15-13 final D2 season. Tony Pujol is the man charged with leading the transition, a former Alabama assistant who most recently worked on Allen Edwards’ staff at Wyoming. With Pujol comes an 8-man freshman class that will set the tone for his tenure. If there are a few studs in this class, Pujol will be in great shape. If not, the roster may be in flux for multiple years.
Questions abound up and down this Stetson roster. The only known commodity is Abayomi Iyiola, a rising sophomore big man who averaged over 10 points and 6 rebounds as a freshman. Beyond that, there’s just not much experience or talent on this roster. Corey Williams is on track for a 6th straight 20-loss season, and he may not get a chance to go for a 7th.
All-Conference First Team:
- Ivan Gandia-Rosa– North Florida (13.7 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 6.2 apg, .417/.369/.891
- Garrison Matthews– Lipscomb (21.7 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 1.8 apg, .465/.381/.799)
- Haanif Cheatham– Florida Gulf Coast (8.7 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 2.2 apg, .458/.325/.767 in 2016-17 at Marquette)
- Jace Hogan– Jacksonville (17.1 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 1.2 apg, .516/.333/.686)
- Scottie James– Liberty (13.5 ppg, 8.9 rpg, 1.1 apg, .616/.326/.752)
Player of the Year: Garrison Matthews (Lipscomb)
Assuming he stays healthy, Matthews will easily eclipse the 2,000 point milestone this season. An unheralded recruit out of high school, Matthews has been a program-changing recruit for Casey Alexander, leading the Bisons to one NCAA Tournament with a great chance for one more. He may not wow you athletically, but Matthews is one of the best players in the nation that no one talks about.
Newcomer of the Year: Haanif Cheatham (FGCU)
After being a key role player for 2+ years for Marquette, Cheatham departed early in the 2017-18 season. He landed at FGCU, and recently earned a waiver to be immediately eligible rather than having to wait until the semester break to play. He’s a high-level athlete who can play multiple positions, and should make a big impact for Michael Fly’s club.
Breakout Player: Jalyn Hinton (Jacksonville)
After a strong freshman campaign at Jacksonville, the sky is the limit for Hinton. A long, athletic wing/forward, Hinton averaged an efficient 9 points and 5 rebounds last season. The only thing he didn’t do was shoot the ball, as he didn’t attempt a single 3-point shot. If he can extend his range, Hinton has all-conference potential.