2020-21 32×32: Atlantic Sun

The A-Sun adds one team and subtracts another as it looks to continue to gain its footing in the shifting mid-major landscape. NJIT’s departure simplifies travel arrangements in this COVID-impacted season, though the program had upside and had been consistently competitive during its time in the conference. Joining is Bellarmine, a consistent D2 power under Scott Davenport that should win games immediately in the league. Long-term success for the league is dependent on some of these D2 to D1 transitions going well, and the Bellarmine move seems like a smart one on the men’s basketball side. There’s also the question of how long Liberty will remain the league: it’s no secret that the school has aspirations of major athletics success, and its football team finding an FBS home may be easier with the departure of Jerry Falwell Jr from the school’s administration. LU’s facilities and budget far outsize most A-Sun programs, and the football program’s 4-0 start this season can’t hurt in its push for a new home. Bottom line: the A-Sun is probably more stable than the WAC, but it remains the most in-flux of the leagues east of the Mississippi River.

  1. Liberty – Perhaps it’s crazy to say this, but Liberty’s 30-4 A-Sun title season in 2019-20 was a twinge disappointing. When preseason expectations put you in the at-large discussion, losing three A-Sun games is surprising, and the offense regressed from a unit close to the top 50 to 107th per KenPom. Still, Ritchie McKay’s club has won 59 games in the last two seasons and has a brand-new arena set to open this fall, establishing the program as one of the best mid-majors in the nation. Retooling without a pair of program-defining pieces in Caleb Homesley and Scottie James will be a challenge, but McKay has done an excellent job in recent years on the recruiting trail to build competitive depth that should pay dividends this season. I’m bullish on a pair of potential breakout pieces in forwards Kyle Rode and Shiloh Robinson, each of whom played good minutes as freshmen. Henderson State transfer Chris Parker should help solidify the backcourt, pairing Darius McGhee and Elijah Cuffee with another ballhandler and shooter. The Flames are a bit thin up front though, with significant growth from Blake Preston needed to match up with the likes of Ahsan Asadullah and Mahamadou Diawara in conference battles.
  2. Lipscomb – After starting 7-13, the Bisons finished strong in year one of the Lennie Acuff era by winning 9 of their final 12 games and reaching the A-Sun title game. Why the turnaround? Star big man Ahsan Asadullah carried the team on his (broad) shoulders, averaging a ridiculous 23 points, 12 rebounds, and close to 5 assists per game. For what it’s worth, no player since at least 1992 has put up that type of stat line for a whole season, per Sports Reference’s play index. And if there’s one reason this team can win the conference in Acuff’s second season, it’s Asadullah – the combination of physicality, toughness on the glass, and passing ability makes him one of the most unique players in the country and one of the best mid-major players anywhere. How much help will he get? Sophomore KJ Johnson is your standard undersized scoring guard at the mid-major level, and his skillset gets maximized by playing with a big who you can run offense through. But the key in the backcourt could be Belmont Abbey grad transfer Romeao Ferguson, a swiss army knife who averaged 18 points, 7 rebounds, and 5 assists while shooting 45% from 3 at the D2 level in 2019. On paper, Ferguson is the perfect third piece for this team: he’s another skilled ball-mover, he can defend multiple positions, and he’ll help maintain spacing around Asadullah down low. If he lives up to the hype, this team is a very real threat to Liberty at the top of this conference.
  3. Stetson – Donnie Jones did one of the finer jobs of any first-year coach nationally in year one with the Hatters, leading an extremely young group to a nine-win improvement and putting in place a core that can compete for championships. Rob Perry and Mahamadou Diawara are about as good a pair of freshman as a first-year coach could possibly land: Perry proved himself as a premier scoring guard at the A-Sun level, while Diawara proved why he had high-major looks out of high school by becoming one of just 14 freshmen to average 12 points and 6 rebounds nationally last season. The Hatters need to take care of the ball better to maximize their offensive potential – a 21% turnover rate in conference play won’t cut it. But with two talented cornerstones to build around and another promising recruiting class on the way, Stetson appears to be headed in the right direction. And for a program that has 17 games in a season just once since 1989, that’s pretty much all you can ask for. 
  4. North Florida – Matt Driscoll’s teams have always been good on the offensive end, but last year’s Ospreys were special even for him! UNF posted the 31st-best offense nationally per KenPom, thanks to a unit that loved putting up threes and knocked them down in bunches. In fact, the Ospreys made more threes per game (11.8) than any team in the country, and they paired that with a defense that focused almost entirely on running guys off the three point line, regardless of how bad it made the rest of the unit. With four double-figure scorers graduating, Driscoll can’t count on this group being as electric on offense, which means shoring up the defense may be the key to a top-half finish. But doing so without a rim protector like Wajid Aminu hanging around may be a challenge. Can the Ospreys still outscore teams? Carter Hendricksen will do his best to — the versatile combo forward is a matchup problem thanks to his elite shooting stroke and ability to attack off the bounce. UMBC transfer Jose Placer seems likely to adopt a big role in the offense from day one and should fit in nicely. He’s not the high-level passer than Ivan Gandia-Rosa was, but he’s a capable scorer who can play with or without the ball. Still, a big incoming freshman class which features six commits will be relied upon to contribute early, with Driscoll lining up several more tall shooters in the mold of Hendricksen, Garrett Sams, Beau Beech, and many others that have been key pieces in this program over the years.
  5. Florida Gulf Coast – Seeing FGCU lose 22 games in 2019-20 was stunning when you consider just how good this program has been in recent years, and the consistent success the Eagles have had certainly ups the pressure for Michael Fly to right the ship sooner rather than later. Fly has finished under .500 in back-to-back seasons to start his tenure after inheriting a program that had won 20 or more games in six straight seasons. The Eagles in 2019-20 were abhorrently bad offensively – 340th nationally in offensive efficiency, 347th in turnover rate, 344th in free throw rate, and 297th in 3-point shooting. Newcomers could help turn the tide: Ole Miss transfer Franco Miller is a good reclamation project in the backcourt, Eli Abaev is an experienced frontcourt piece, and JUCO wing Dom London averaged close to 20 points per game and made over 100 threes at Harcum in 2019-20. FGCU also adds an impressive three-man freshman class highlighted by well-regarded Puerto Rico product Victor Rosa. This type of talent injection was necessary, but it may not cure all evils. I need to see more from Fly as a coach before I move the Eagles up much in the preseason ranks.
  6. North Alabama – The Lions went 8-8 in league play in their second season of Division 1 competition, as Tony Pujol continues to build a program that plays in attack mode at all times. Losing Christian Agnew to the portal was without a doubt a blow: Agnew entered the program with Pujol and had a knack for getting to the free throw line. But UNA does have several talented young pieces to build around as it continues its transition into Division 1. Ghastly A/TO ratio aside, Mervin James has all the makings of a star in the A-Sun – a physical forward comfortable facing up and attacking with a developing jumper that could turn into an asset in future years. He’ll pair with Emanuel Littles to form an impressive frontcourt unit. I’ll have my eye on JUCO product Isaac Chatman, who began his career at Campbell and put up impressive numbers as a freshman. He has the potential to be one of the better newcomers in the conference. Can Jamari Blackmon handle an even bigger load at guard? If he can, the Lions could assert themselves in a jumbled middle tier of the conference.
  7. Bellarmine – The A-Sun continues to add members by bringing them up from the D2 ranks, this one in long-time Kentucky basketball powerhouse Bellarmine. Coached by Louisville native and Rick Pitino/Denny Crum disciple Scott Davenport, Bellarmine has become known for giving high-majors a scare in preseason exhibitions: they lost by just 10 to both Louisville and Notre Dame last season and have previously tested the likes of Indiana and Cincinnati as well. Davenport’s teams have consistently put up points, aggressively attacked the rim, and forced plenty of turnovers. Three key building blocks return: a pair of guards in sharp-shooting CJ Fleming and physical Dylan Penn, as well as the uber-versatile Pedro Bradshaw, who spent time at multiple D1 programs before finally finding a home at Bellarmine. We’ve seen several examples in recent years of teams thriving early in their time in D1. Can Bellarmine be the next Merrimack or Northern Kentucky?
  8. Jacksonville – It’s hard to project much improvement for a JU program that loses its top 4 scorers from a season ago. The grad transfer departure of Destin Barnes (UCSB) was the final blow to a group already set to lose double-double machine David Bell and two starters in the backcourt. Tony Jasick’s group adding back Tyreese Davis after the wing missed all of last season is a significant boon – Davis posted strong numbers and looked to be on a path to stardom during his freshman campaign. Samford transfer Kevion Nolan should also play a key role. Still, there doesn’t really appear to be any direction for the program right now, and that’s not a good sign when you’ve been on the job as long as Jasick has.
  9. Kennesaw State – I do expect significant improvement for Amir Abdur-Rahim over time – he’s simply too good a recruiter not to get this program to a better place sooner rather than later. But look: this is a team with six freshmen, no seniors, and virtually no returning talent. Oh, and by the way: KSU won a grad total of one game last season. It’s going to take awhile to turn things around. The biggest addition without a doubt is in-state product Chris Youngblood, a fringe top-150 recruit and one of the top players in Georgia who should make a massive impact from day one. High school teammate Brandon Stroud is also well-regarded, and the Youngblood/Stroud duo should likely be the cornerstone of the future Owl clubs. But for now, expect one more year of ugliness before things really turn around.

All-Conference First Team:

  • Darius McGhee (Liberty)
  • Rob Perry (Stetson)
  • Carter Hendricksen (North Florida)
  • Mahamadou Diawara (Stetson)
  • Ahsan Asadullah (Lipscomb)

Player of the Year: Ahsan Asadullah (Lipscomb) – As I wrote above, Asadullah went from excellent to super-human down the stretch, absolutely wrecking everyone in his way for well over a month. Few bigs in the league have any hope of stopping him on the block, and sending multiple defenders just cues a smart pass for an easy bucket. It’s amazing his name isn’t talked about more as one of college basketball’s best.

Breakout Player: Kyle Rode (Liberty) – It feels likely that the biggest breakout star in the conference comes from Liberty, but projecting which guy will take the biggest step forward is more complex. I like Rode, who put up solid numbers during his freshman campaign in Lynchburg. Rode is a capable floor-spacer, steady around the rim, and plays smart. His numbers cooled off down the stretch, but he posted some huge games early in his freshman campaign, and I like Rode to take strides towards being the next all-conference guy to don the Liberty uniform.

Newcomer of the Year: Chris Youngblood (Kennesaw State) – Youngblood is in a different tier of recruit than your average A-Sun pickup, and he should be the type of piece that sets the tone for more big recruiting wins for Amir Abdur-Rahim at Kennesaw. He’s a long, athletic wing who just looks like a high-major guy off the bus, and he’ll certainly get his share of shots on a team that needs plenty of help offensively.

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