Having captivated the nation during their historic Sweet 16 run, Florida Gulf Coast opens curtain on an encore in "Dunk City." (Animated .GIF photo courtesy of the Washington Post)
Our "32 In 32" series returns this morning with a closer look at the conference that introduced the world to "Dunk City," the Atlantic Sun Conference. A field of ten returns this season, with NCAA Tournament Cinderella Florida Gulf Coast and regular season champion Mercer the teams to beat. Who gets the edge, you ask? Well, here's how we see the league playing out:
1) Florida Gulf Coast - The high-flying and colorful enterprise that brought us "Dunk City" en route to the first-ever Sweet 16 appearance by a No. 15 seed is not a one-year wonder, despite a new head coach in longtime Kansas assistant Joe Dooley, who took the reins in Fort Myers after Andy Enfield parlayed his run with the Eagles into a bigger payday at Southern California. Enfield, who responded to criticism of his recruiting by mentioning his supermodel wife Amanda, left the cupboard full for his successor Dooley, who inherits arguably the most underrated point guard in the nation in junior Brett Comer. Comer, whose alley-oop to senior forward Chase Fieler; who also returns, is featured in our cover shot, averaged nearly seven assists per game, while Fieler shot 56 percent from the field and 38 from three-point range. Junior shooting guard Bernard Thompson is a defensive threat as well, coming off a season in which he managed almost three steals per game, and Sherwood Brown's spot in the lineup will be filled seamlessly by Marquette transfer Jamail Jones, who will join Fieler and Eric McKnight, FGCU's fourth returning starter.
2) Mercer - Most fans will know Mercer for nothing else other than being the alma mater of former NBA journeyman and coach Sam Mitchell, and will know the Bears' home of Macon, Georgia for nothing else other than being the home of the Allman Brothers Band, but the fact remains that Mercer has a solid basketball program too. Leading scorer Travis Smith is no longer around, but point guard Langston Hall is back for his senior season on the heels of a five-assist per game campaign as a junior. Forwards Jakob Gollon and Bud Thomas form an interchangeable swingman combo to complement twin towers Daniel Coursey and Monty Brown up front for the Bears, whose frontcourt is deep and experienced enough to rival some high-major programs.
3) Jacksonville - The Dolphins may have finished just 14-18 last season, but return enough pieces to a team that will give the northeast region of Florida a reason to forget about the struggles of the NFL's Jaguars. Leading scorers Keith McDougald and Jarvis Haywood return to anchor the Jacksonville backcourt, while Kordario Fleming and Javon Dawson make up for their size deficit with their hard-nosed rebounding skills. The lack of height in the frontcourt does get a boost, however, as graduate transfer RJ Slawson arrives with immediate eligibility after spending last season with Frank Martin at South Carolina.
4) USC Upstate - With all three of their leading scorers back, the Spartans can considerably jump past Jacksonville and into the No. 3 spot if the balls bounce in all the right places. Senior swingman Torrey Craig and burgeoning big man Ricardo Glenn, also a senior, lead the charge in the paint, while junior shooting guard Ty Greene will anchor the backcourt on the heels of a sophomore year in which the Knoxville native shot 36 percent from three-point range. Senior forward Jodd Maxey could be USC Upstate's X-factor, as he has the potential to average a double-double per game following averages of eight points and six rebounds a year ago.
5) Stetson - Chris Perez, who was a focal point in the backcourt for the Hatters last year, has transferred to Canisius, and leading scorer Adam Pegg has graduated, leaving Stetson with an arduous task as they begin the 2013-14 season. With both leading scorers no longer around, senior shooting guard Aaron Graham takes the reins of the offense, and will look for a breakout senior season from swingman Willie Green, who leads the supporting cast.
6) Lipscomb - Much like Stetson ahead of them, the Bison must also replace both of their leading scorers, but also have two qualified options to take their place in the Smith twins, Martin and Malcolm. The brothers, junior swingmen from Clarksville, Tennessee; the hometown of Manhattan College play-by-play announcer and friend of the site Christian Heimall, combined to average over 22 points and nine rebounds per game last season. Khion Sankey, despite standing only 6-5, is one of the better rebounders at his size, having averaged seven boards per game as a junior last year.
7) East Tennessee State - Sophomore Lester Wilson, who averaged thirteen points per game in his rookie season for the Buccaneers, already has the potential to become one of the best scorers in the conference with such a solid freshman campaign under his belt. With shooting guard Rashawn Rembert and power forward Hunter Harris coming back, ETSU has a solid inside/outside scoring duo whose capabilities are enhanced with the addition of Providence expatriate Ron Giplaye.
8) Kennesaw State - The Owls, known for their upset of Georgia Tech just a few short years ago, return junior guard Delbert Love as the focal point of their offense, but lose leading scorer Markeith Cummings and double-double threat Aaron Anderson. Sophomores Myles Hamilton and Nigel Pruitt, a point guard and swingman, respectively, will need to step up on the offensive end to get Kennesaw State further into contention.
9) Northern Kentucky - The Norse will have sophomore forward Jalen Billups back for a full season after he was limited to just seven games last year, a big help for senior guard Chad Jackson, who will anchor the offense. Billups' fellow second-year teammates Tyler White and Jack Flournoy should have noticeable increases in productivity this season as they transition into the starting lineup.
10) North Florida - Following a 13-19 season, the Ospreys lose four of their five starters, leaving sophomore shooting guard Beau Beech to shoulder the offensive load on a team with a grand total of just five juniors and seniors on its roster. One of the two seniors, forward Charles McRoy, will be a full-time starter this season after serving as a reserve last year, and will need to have a breakout farewell campaign to salvage the year for North Florida.