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Florida Gulf Coast rising again in Atlantic Sun

By Greg Peterson  ( 

November 2, 2017 03:07 AM
Joe Dooley coached Florida Gulf Coast to a 26-win season, which ended with a first-round NCAA Tournament loss to Florida State.
© USA Today Sports Images

The Atlantic Sun has been dominated by the teams from Florida since Belmont left the league, with Florida Gulf Coast grabbing at least a share first in two of the past four years and North Florida claiming the conference crown in the other two seasons.

Last year, it was the team best known as Dunk City, Florida Gulf Coast, taking the conference as the Eagles posted a 26-8 record thanks in large part to a guard who transferred within the state. Brandon Goodwin put up monster numbers in his first year at FGCU, after beginning his career at Central Florida, with 18.5 points per game.

Junior guard Zach Johnson did a good job of giving him a helping hand by averaging 11.9 points. Goodwin made 35.3 percent of his 3-point attempts and Johnson hit 34.4 percent while Rayjon Tucker was the sharpest long-distance shooter. He averaged 7.7 points as the team's most important reserve, sinking 45.3 percent of his triples.

C.J. Williamson, a 6-foot-6 Texas Tech transfer, should help the team as well after he sat out the 2016-17 season. He played sparingly in one season at the Big 12 school, but he is the type of player who suits this program well given his athleticism and willingness to battle in the paint.

Antravious Simmons, a 6-foot-9, 250-pound senior center, actually saw a decrease in minutes from his sophomore to junior year, but he should be a starter.  He had 5.4 points and 3.4 rebounds per game with his usage per game fluctuating a lot during the 2106-17 season. Brady Ernst, a junior-college transfer, originally committed to Xavier but changed his mind in April and is expected to start for Dunk City. 

Joe Dooley is coaching a team with shooters and size. Michigan transfer Ricky Doyle should make a huge contribution down low. In two years with the Wolverines, he started 30 games and averaged 4.9 points and 2.5 rebounds and made 62.4 percent of his shots.

The Eagles ranked fifth in the nation in field-goal shooting with a 49.9 percent efficiency thanks in large part to racking up 149 regular-season dunks. With another hyper-athletic team, the high shooting percentage should continue. FGCU should be the heavy favorite in the conference and Goodwin should be a top candidate for conference player of the year.

Lipscomb went 11-3 in Atlantic Sun play and compiled a 20-13 record thanks to a high-scoring offense that put up 85 points per game, which was No. 9 in D-I basketball. The Bisons also ended last season by winning 16 of their past 20 games after allowing 83.7 points per game to their first 11 D-I foes.

The leader of the offense is 6-foot-5 junior guard Garrison Mathews, who averaged 20.4 points, 5.6 rebounds and 2.3 assists.

The team was above average in regard to 3-point shooting, making 36.6 percent of those shots, which was 100th out of 351 D-I teams. Where Lipscomb separated itself was the volume of 3s it made — 10.3 per game, which ranked sixth in the nation. Matthews made a team-high 2.8 3s per game, but was aided by Josh Williams and Nathan Moran, who knocked down 4.9 per game combined. Williams is out of eligibility. Moran made 41.7 percent of his 3s as he complied 11.1 points and a team-high 4.2 assists.  He was the team's main ball handler and is back for his senior year.

Though the team specializes in launching outside shots, 6-foot-8 traditional big man Rob Marberry chipped in 12.7 points and 4.9 rebounds and shot 61 percent from the floor. The junior also proved to be a solid free-throw shooter, making 74.3 percent of his shots at the line, a better percentage than Mathews. Eli Pepper, a 6-foot-8 junior, started last year and led the team with 7.4 rebounds.

Though the Bisons rolled with the same starting five for a lot of the season, Lipscomb did go 10 deep with George Brammeier being the only true big man to spell minutes for Pepper and Marberry. He made the most of his opportunities, racking up averages of 6.8 points and 3.2 rebounds in 14.6 minutes per game.

Kenny Cooper was far from a prolific 3-point shooter, making just 27.1 percent of his shots from deep, but was the team's top scoring reserve with 6.9 points as a backup point guard. Samford transfer Matt Rose, a 6-foot-7 forward and a 40.9 percent 3-point shooter, could have an inside track to get a starting spot.

Lipscomb has possibly the deepest team in the conference, though its style leads to feast or famine at times.  This team is not athletic enough to keep up with Florida Gulf Coast, but shooting barrages should help dispatch any other team in the conference. Another 20-win season and second-place finish in the conference is likely.

North Florida had won the Atlantic Sun regular-season conference crown each of the two years prior to the 2016-17 campaign, but got off to a bad start last year and was third in the conference with an 8-6 record in league play.

The Ospreys have a lot of their pieces from last year returning but lose their cornerstone in 6-foot-1 guard Dallas Moore. He was a senior who won his second straight conference player of the year honor with an average of 23.9 points. Moore also shot 39.8 percent from 3 while taking 7.4 threes per game, a figure that must be picked up by committee.

North Florida had the fourth-most total turnovers in college basketball last year, giving the ball away an average of 15.9 times per game. Stretch sophomores Garrett Sams and Wajid Aminu will be relied upon to carry the team this year. The duo had a combined 19.5 points and 10.7 rebounds per game. Sams was the most effective 3-point shooter on the team by hitting 42.2 percent.

Though the team is full of 6-foot-6 and 6-foot-7 two-way players, Romelo Banks is the team's lone true center.  The 6-foot-11 senior had 7.5 points, 6 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game a season ago.

Ole Miss transfer J.T. Escobar will be asked to do a lot. He hardly played at the SEC school during his freshman year of 2015-16 after being rated as a three-star prospect by ESPN coming out of high school. He has good court vision and is a very capable 3-point shooter, so he should play the point a lot.

The team will also look to 6-foot-1 Ivan Gandia to jump-start things. He had 15.3 points, 6.5 assists and 4.6 rebounds per game last year with 40.1 percent 3-point shooting. He’s the player most similar to Dallas Moore on this roster and likely will have an immediate leadership role.

The Ospreys could slide another spot or two in the conference standings given all the losses on the roster, but this team’s future is bright and it should have a shot to storm back toward the top of the Atlantic Sun in the 2018-19 season.

Stetson had two players test the NBA Draft waters during the offseason despite finishing last in the Atlantic Sun with a 3-11 record and winning only 11 games.

Derick Newton, a 6-foot-7 forward, and 5-foot-11 Divine Myles carried the Hatters as they led the team in points and rebounds per game. Newton had 17.8 points and 5.7 rebounds per game while converting 37 percent of the 5.2 3s per game he took. Myles was also spectacular with 16.5 points, 4.7 rebounds and 3.9 assists, canning a team-best 38.5 percent of his 3s.

Running the point was 5-foot-8 Angel Rivera, and 6-foot-5 Luke Doyle is another starter in the backcourt who made 37.3 percent of his 3s. He averaged 10.6 points and 3.7 rebounds.

With 6-foot-9 Larry Dennis returning to start at the center position, interior defense and rebounding need to improve. This team got destructed on the glass, allowing opponents to grab the sixth-most total rebounds of any team in the nation with a rebound margin of minus-7.8, third-worst in the nation. And 6-foot-8, 260-pound sophomore Clay Verk could be the guy for the job.

Leo Goodman and B.J. Glasford are by far the team's two most important reserves as both can play either the shooting guard or small forward spots. If the Hatters can get some rebounds from 6-foot-9 freshman Abayomi Iyiola and defense from incoming freshman guard Kenny Aninye, this team can get to the middle of the Atlantic Sun pack.  

Longtime Boston College and Rhode Island coach Al Skinner went 14-18 in his second year at Kennesaw State while going 7-7 in Atlantic Sun play. It will be difficult to duplicate that result with team leaders Kendrick Ray and Aubrey Williams out of eligibility.

Nick Masterson, a 6-foot-5 senor guard, had 12.9 points, 2.4 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game and figures to be the team leader this year. He drilled 54.1 percent of the 5.1 3s per game he attempted. Kennesaw State shot 41.6 percent from long range, the third-best team 3-point shooting percentage in the nation.

Sophomore guard Tyler Hooker will be one of the team's main ball-handlers following a season in which he compiled 6.1 points and 2.2 assists, and 6-foot-5 Kyle Clarke was a starter who registered 4.8 points, though he did not make a single 3 last year, which is unheard of for a guard in this day and age.

Unless Masterson can shoot lights-out from 3 with defenses now zeroing in on him, the Owls will take a step back this year. Their recruiting class is providing close to zero help whatsoever and they have no post play to aid Masterson. If Kennesaw State gets more than 10 wins, it will have overachieved.

South Carolina Upstate went 17-16 last year and 7-7 in conference play for its third winning season in four years. The team is loaded with inside-out big guys, but the Spartans must replace their leading scorer and rebounder, 6-foot-11 traditional big man Michael Buchanan.

Junior point guard Mike Cunningham will have more pressure on his shoulders. He made 38.5 percent of his 3s and averaged 13.4 points, 3.1 assists, 2.5 rebounds and 1.3 steals.

Malik Moore and Ramel Tompkins, a pair of 6-foot-6 combo players, combined for 19.1 points, 10 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.5 steals per game. With both back for their junior years and fellow 6-foot-6 stretch player Jacob Schulte returning after redshirting last year, this team should not have many depth issues at the big guard and small forward spots. The Spartans are hoping junior-college transfer guard Patrick Welch can be a diamond in the rough after he made 37.8 percent of his 3s while averaging 9.6 points.

USC Upstate looks destined to be back in the middle of the conference standings and likely around .500, if not a game or two below that mark.

Things did not go well for NJIT in its first year under coach Brian Kennedy, as the Highlanders went 11-20, their lowest win total since the 2009-10 season. And things do not appear to be getting much rosier with their two top scorers gone.

Damon Lynn leaves NJIT as the school’s all-time leading scorer after a senior year in which the guard scored 20.2 points. Lynn missed the final 10 games of the season due to injury, which gave sophomore Shyquan Gibbs a chance to start. The 6-foot-1 Gibbs averaged 3.3 points and 1.6 assists per game last year, but saw those numbers tick up at the end of the year.

Anthony Tarke, a 6-foot-6 wing, figures to start after being the team’s most effective player off the bench last year. Tarke made 36.5 percent of his 3s with averages of 9.9 points, 4.7 rebounds and 1.1 steals as a freshman. Abdul Lewis, a 6-foot-9 big man, returns to man the paint after leading the team with 8.5 rebounds to go along with 9.7 points per game.

Unless Kennedy can get the ESPN-rated one-star recruits he has coming in to play above expectations, this is going to be another brutal year. Shawndale Jones looks like a freshman who could score and possibly even start, and 6-foot-7 forward Taj Price needs to make an impact. NJIT might avoid last place in the conference, but that’s about it.

Jacksonville had a 17-16 record last year, its highest win total since the 2010-11 season, but must replace six of the top nine players.

Tanner Rubio and Tanner Harris were both big cogs in the backcourt last year and will be looked upon for leadership this year. Harris had a team-high 5.4 rebounds per game to go with 10.9 points. He has good size being 6-foot-4, but shot just 27.8 percent from 3, so he will likely be a pass-first ball handler this year. Rubio is the opposite, as the 6-foot sophomore made 48.9 percent of the 4.5 3s per game he took while averaging 8.9 points and 2.1 assists per game in a sixth-man role.

The Dolphins will hope for better health as starting forward Marcel White had his senior season limited to just 12 games, as he averaged 13.8 points. He shot 38 percent from 3 as did the rest of the team, as 

The Dolphins lost five seniors who shot at least 38 percent from 3. Jacksonville ranked 11th in D-I basketball in 3-point percentage at 40.3. Now, 6-foot-8 stretch forward Cody Helgeland will looked upon as a do-it-all player. The team brings in a post presence in 6-foot-7 Jace Hogan, who comes by way of Navy.  He sat out the 2016-17 season due to NCAA transfer rules after averaging 9.7 points and 4.8 rebounds per game off the bench as a sophomore.

This is still Florida Gulf Coast’s conference and everyone else is fighting for second. Lipscomb looks to be that No. 2 squad, with Stetson being a dark horse in the running. The conference has three NCAA Tournament wins from teams seeded 14 or lower since 2013, and with Florida Gulf Coast likely to be a 13 or 14 seed if it can avoid a landmine in the Atlantic Sun Tournament, that number could go higher.

Greg Peterson’s Atlantic Sun forecast:

1. Florida Gulf Coast

2. Lipscomb

3. Stetson

4. South Carolina Upstate

5. North Florida

6. Jacksonville


8. Kennesaw State

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