Our commemoration of the 2011-12 college basketball season started with a preview of the America East yesterday, and continues with a look at another underrated league in the Atlantic Sun conference that features a team on the rise looking to add to an already stellar run while fending off challenges from teams led by familiar faces.
1) Belmont - Fresh off a conference title and NCAA Tournament appearance, head coach Rick Byrd retools with a team that could very well be a Top 25 program by the end of the season if last year's 30-win campaign was any indication. The Bruins return each of their three leading scorers as well, with junior guard Ian Clark joining the senior frontcourt of Mick Hedgepeth and Scott Saunders.
2) East Tennessee State - If Belmont doesn't make it out of the Atlantic Sun, then ETSU is the school I would like to see in the NCAA Tournament. Not just because the Buccaneers nearly upset Pittsburgh as a 16 seed back in 2009; but more importantly because Kyle Mattracion, my former producer for St. John's baseball broadcasts on redstormsports.com, is a graduate assistant in the ETSU sports information office. The Bucs may just be the best young team in the Atlantic Sun; and despite losing both of their leading scorers from last season, coach Murry Bartow brings in the right blend of youth and experience to build around top returning players Isiah Brown and Adam Sollazzo.
3) Jacksonville - What the Dolphins lack in size, they make up for in intangibles and toughness. Seniors Travis Cohn and Ayron Hardy return to anchor a team that brings most of its core back from a third-place finish in the Atlantic Sun last year, a season highlighted by the Dolphins' road overtime win against Billy Donovan and Florida.
4) Kennesaw State - The Owls are the team on the rise in the Atlantic Sun this season, and should make the biggest jump in the conference after tying for eighth last season despite their resounding upset of Georgia Tech in the second game of the year. Four of the top five scorers from last season are back this year, with Markeith Cummings and Spencer Dixon leading the charge from the backcourt while LaDaris Green and Aaron Anderson patrol the paint for the Owls up front.
5) North Florida - Four starters return for the Ospreys, and leading scorer Parker Smith will finally get to crack the everyday lineup at the point guard position as he enters his senior season. The leading three-point and free throw shooter last season for North Florida, Smith will team with Jimmy Williams in the backcourt for a team that will have back class and experience on their side after playing five Top 25 teams a year ago.
6) Lipscomb - Nashville's college team will be led by guard Jordan Burgason as the 6-3 senior will be the unquestioned face of the program. What most don't know about Burgason is that he is a former high school teammate of North Carolina star Harrison Barnes, albeit two years Barnes' senior. Fellow guard Jacob Arnett should also get more chances to increase his productivity from last year, a season in which he shot 42 percent from beyond the arc.
7) Florida Gulf Coast - The program reclassifying from Division II won seven games in conference last year, and gets a big boost from the return of Swiss import Christophe Varidel for his sophomore campaign. The 6-2 guard averaged over eleven points per game while also shooting 38 percent from three-point range and 84 percent from the free throw line in his rookie season, and will only get better as he becomes the focal point of the Eagles' offense.
8) Mercer - The university famous for producing former NBA player and coach Sam Mitchell returns just one senior in forward Justin Cecil, but could make a push for the top half of the standings. The biggest challenge for Bears coach Bob Hoffman will be to get a group of role players accustomed to a regular rotation.
9) Stetson - Junior guard Tyshawn Patterson is the top returning player for the aptly named Hatters, who, like Mercer, return just one senior, that being 6-4 forward Jermol Paul. With only two other players joining Paul up front, Stetson will be challenged inside; and will need to rely on its guard play more often than not.
10) USC Upstate - Torrey Craig led the Spartans in scoring, giving fans of the former Division II program something to look forward to. Here's some even better news: He's only a sophomore. Fellow second-year player Ricardo Glenn could be the next breakout star for the Spartans, and he will be part of a young and potentially explosive rebounding tandem inside with the aforementioned Craig.