By Kevin Sweeney
The A-Sun was nearly a two-bid league last season, with an elite Lipscomb team just missing out on the Big Dance while league newcomers Liberty danced into March and knocked off Mississippi State before falling to Virginia Tech in the second round. Overall, the league seems to be on a positive trajectory, thanks to some good coaching hires at the bottom of the conference and the continued development of programs like Liberty and Lipscomb.
#1. Liberty– The easy choice here. The Flames return five of their top six scorers from a fringe top-50 team that won an NCAA Tournament game last season, and should absolutely wreck a weaker A-Sun in 2019-20. Scottie James and Caleb Homesley might be the two best players in the league, and Ritchie McKay has recruited extremely well to give this roster great depth. The schedule might not be quite strong enough to earn an at-large bid, but that may not matter if they run through the league the way I expect they well.
#2. North Florida– The weakness for Matt Driscoll’s teams at UNF has always been on defense, but the Ospreys made some positive strides in that area last season, especially down the stretch. After a 37-point lost at home against Lipscomb that pushed their record to 9-16, UNF closed strong with seven wins in their final eight games to build optimism for 2019-20. The Ospreys will dearly miss Noah Horchler’s inside presence, and it will be interesting to see if Driscoll opts for some small-ball with Wajid Aminu at the 5. Still, the roster is talented and has tons of guys who can score. I’ll roll my dices with them in a wide-open “best of the rest” category.
#3. NJIT– The Highlanders have perhaps the league’s best guard in diminutive dynamo Zach Cooks, an elite scorer and defensive pest who averaged over 17 points per game in 2018-19. Brian Kennedy will certainly miss having a low-post bruiser to do the dirty work in Abdul Lewis at his disposal, but pairing Cooks with another solid guard in Shyquan Gibbs is a great place to start. If Kennedy can get steady play from one (or both) of his two freshman bigs, Xavier Mayo and Liam Murphy, the Highlanders will be in great shape.
#4. Florida Gulf Coast– Not much went right for the Eagles in year one under Michael Fly, with injuries and suspensions crippling an FGCU team that entered the year with high aspirations. At a program with high expectations and a lot of advantages, Fly needs to turn things around quick, and will look to a guard-driven team to do so. D2 Nova Southeastern transfer Malik Hardy and JUCO product Jalen Warren (Eastern Florida State) should buoy a backcourt that already features a young talent in Zach Scott. Meanwhile, versatile forward Tracy Hector enters from FAMU and should play a big role right away.
#5. Lipscomb– The Bisons are a hard team to peg thanks to the amount of roster turnover already set to take place, combined with a new coach in Lennie Acuff who has never coached at the D1 level. Acuff has drawn significant praise for his work at Alabama-Huntsville and is seen as an X&O guru, but returns just two players who averaged more than 10 minutes per game last season. Look for big man Ahsan Asadullah to have a huge year, but Acuff will have to find consistent guard play, especially given the departure of Kenny Cooper to Western Kentucky in the aftermath of the coaching change.
#6. Jacksonville– Losing star guard JD Notae to Arkansas this offseason was a crushing blow for Tony Jasick, given how much production was set to return around him this coming season. Talented young wing Tyreese Davis seemed poised to blossom into a star next to Notae after an impressive freshman campaign, but now he’ll be asked to grow up even faster and be the #1 option for the Dolphins in 2019-20. The pairing of Davis and Alabama transfer Diante Wood will determine whether JU will have a chance to climb the standings in 2019-20.
#7. North Alabama– After going 0-13 against D1 opponents to open their inaugural D1 campaign, Tony Pujol and UNA turned things around nicely down the stretch to finish 7-9 in conference play. Hoover native Jamari Blackmon emerged as a cornerstone, averaging almost 15 points per game in an impressive freshman season. He’ll need to improve his efficiency into year two as well as work on involving others in the offense, with fellow sophomore Christian Agnew seemingly poised for a strong year two as well.
#8. Stetson– Hiring former UCF and Marshall head coach Donnie Jones seems like a strong move for the Hatters, especially given Jones’ strong recruiting connections throughout the country. He assembled a strong 6-man freshman class this spring, headlined by a pair of high-upside frontcourt prospects in Joel Kamimba and Mahamadou Diawara. UCF grad transfer Chance McSpadden should provide some scoring punch next to Christiaan Jones.
#9. Kennesaw State– I loved the hire of Amir Abdur-Rahim– a guy with extensive ties to the Atlanta area who should crush it on the recruiting trail. Abdur-Rahim has already set the foundation for a strong 2020 recruiting class, but for now, the cupboard is fairly bare. Given the Owls lost 19 games by 15 or more points last season, there’s nowhere to go but up.
All-Conference First Team:
- Tyler Hooker (Kennesaw State)
- Zach Cooks (NJIT)
- Caleb Homesley (Liberty)
- Wajid Aminu (North Florida)
- Scottie James (Liberty)
Player of the Year: Scottie James (Liberty)
It’s a toss-up between the two Liberty stars here, and in the end I’ll go with James, whose energy and effort on every play set the tone for this Liberty bunch. He’s one of the most efficient players in the country, a great finisher at the rim who is a terror on the glass thanks to his quickness. He should have a terrific senior year on one of the nation’s best mid-major teams.
Breakout Player: Ahsan Asadullah (Lipscomb)
Asadullah was a major weapon off the bench for the Bisons last season in somewhat limited minutes, a highly productive player around the rim who impacted the game on both ends. Per 30 minutes, Asadullah averaged over 15 points, 9.7 rebounds, and 1.4 blocks. With the rest of the Lipscomb frontcourt graduating, Lennie Acuff would be wise to feed Asadullah as much as possible.
Newcomer of the Year: Malik Hardy (Florida Gulf Coast)
After averaging over 17 points per game as a freshman at the D2 level, Hardy elected to transfer up and has found a home in Fort Myers. His scoring ability will be a welcome addition for the Eagles, who lose a high-scoring combo guard in Schadrac Casimir from last season.