Atlantic Sun Conference Preview: North Florida, Florida Gulf Coast lead a wide-open league

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Beginning in September and running up through November 11th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2016-2017 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Atlantic Sun conference.

The Atlantic Sun has experienced a surprising amount of tournament success recently as Florida Gulf Coast set the standard with its Sweet 16 appearance and famous “Dunk City” nickname in 2013 and Mercer followed that up with a win over Duke in the opening round in 2014.

The trend of solid tourney performances for the league continued last season when A-Sun tournament champion Florida Gulf Coast trailed eventual national runner-up North Carolina by only a point at halftime in a 1-16 game until the Tar Heels pulled away and won by 16 in the second half.

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This season, the league is hoping to be another tough out in the tournament as they’re led by the last two teams to make the NCAA tournament from the conference in North Florida and Florida Gulf Coast, and the rest of the league appears to be completely wide open.

After winning the regular season title last season, North Florida returns Atlantic Sun Player of the Year and senior point guard Dallas Moore as he’s clearly the top candidate to repeat his awards from last season. Moore is joined by talented forward Chris Davenport and 6-foot-11 senior Romelo Ranks returns from injury to anchor the post.

Florida Gulf Coast beat North Florida by 33 in the conference tournament and ended up back in the Big Dance as they return productive senior forward Marc-Eddy Norelia. The Eagles return four starters total as Antravious Simmons, Zach Johnson and Christian Terrell are all back and a few talented transfers makes this roster an intriguing one.

From there, the Atlantic Sun appears completely wide open with a lot of unpredictable rosters. Jacksonville was gutted by injuries last season and still managed to contend for the league’s regular-season title. The Dolphins return three starters and three more players from injury, including Darius Dawkins, who led the nation in made three-pointers before his season-ending injury.

NJIT had an admirable showing in their inaugural season in the Atlantic Sun, finishing 8-6 in league play. High-scoring senior guard Damon Lynn returns to lead while he’s flanked by two other returning starters. Tim Coleman is another returning double-figure scorer as the Highlanders have the talent to win the league.

Lipscomb lost high-scoring guard J.C. Hampton to Texas A&M as a graduate transfer but they get a transfer of their own in Western Kentucky center Rob Marberry. Former all-conference guard Josh Williams also returns from a season-ending injury as the Bisons are hoping to improve on consecutive .500 conference marks.

Stetson has some interesting pieces despite coming off a 4-10 league campaign. Forward Derick Newton was the Atlantic Sun Freshman of the Year last season and the Hatters return their top seven scorers and four starters. Kennesaw State brings back leading scorer Kendrick Ray but they have to replace 18 points a game from Yonel Brown. Al Skinner’s ballclub returns two more starters and productive bench scorer Aubrey Williams. Bringing up the rear is USC Upstate as they return all five starters and could just as easily finish in the league’s top half. Deion Holmes and 7-footer Michael Buchanan are returning double-figure scorers for the Spartans.

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PRESEASON ATLANTIC SUN PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Dallas Moore, North Florida

The easy choice for this award since Moore won Atlantic Sun Player of the Year honors last season. The 6-foot-1 point guard led the Atlantic Sun in points (19.7 ppg) and assists (6.0 apg) last season while also shooting 51 percent from the field and 39 percent from three-point range. After withdrawing his name from the 2016 NBA Draft after testing the waters, Moore is hoping that another big season gives him a chance at making The League.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON ATLANTIC SUN TEAM:

  • Damon Lynn, NJIT: The 5-foot-11 senior was an all-league selection last season as he’s averaged at least 17.0 points per game all three years of college.
  • Kendrick Ray, Kennesaw State: The 6-foot-1 senior put up 18.7 points per game last season as those numbers could go up with the departure of Yonel Brown.
  • Chris Davenport, North Florida: Versatile senior 6-foot-8 forward was fourth in the league in rebounding, second in blocks and shot 37 percent on three-pointers last season.
  • Marc Eddy Norelia, Florida Gulf Coast: Dominant at times in the conference tournament last season, the 6-foot-8 senior averaged 17.1 points and 9.3 rebounds per game for the 2015-16 campaign.

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PREDICTED FINISH

  1. North Florida
  2. Florida Gulf Coast
  3. Jacksonville
  4. NJIT
  5. Lipscomb
  6. Stetson
  7. Kennesaw State
  8. USC Upstate