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Atlantic Sun Preview: Has North Florida overthrown #DunkCity?

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Beginning in October and running up through November 13th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2015-2016 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Atlantic Sun Conference.

For the first time in three seasons, the Atlantic Sun representative failed to make noise in the NCAA tournament. In 2013, Florida Gulf Coast famously became #DunkCity after knocking off Georgetown and San Diego State en route to becoming the first No. 15 seed to reach the Sweet 16. In 2014, Mercer followed up FGCU’s run by pulling off an opening round upset of No. 3 seed Duke and Jabari Parker.

In the first tournament appearance in program history, the North Florida Ospreys could not add to the upsets, but the good news is Matthew Driscoll should be in line for another shot at One Shining Moment again this March. His Ospreys are the favorites to repeat in the Atlantic Sun, returning four starters from last season’s first-place finish. Among the returnees are junior guard Dallas Moore (15.8 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 3.8 apg), a candidate for Conference Player of the Year, two other double-digit scorers in Beau Beech and Chris Davenport, and DeMarcus Daniels, the reigning Atlantic Sun Defensive Player of the Year.

That core was part of the conference’s most efficient offense and the second-most efficient defense last season, according to kenpom. The Ospreys offense was among the nation’s leaders in field goal percentage and 3-point percentage. North Florida was top-15 in 3-pointers per game at 9.1. During a five-game winning streak to close out the regular season and clinch home-court advantage in the A-Sun Tournament, North Florida shot 43 percent from three.

Florida Gulf Coast said goodbye to Brett Comer and Bernard Thompson, the decorated back court from the 2013 Sweet 16, but that doesn’t mean the Eagles are going away.

Jamail Jones and Nate Hicks also graduated. Julian DeBose, who averaged 11.6 points per game, returns to anchor the back court. Rayvon Tucker, a Rivals150 guard, joins the FGCU perimeter. Joe Dooley will have the conference’s top frontline with UNLV transfer Demetris Morant and Marc-Eddy Norelia back. VCU transfer Antravious Simmons becomes eligible in January. Filip Cvjeticanin, the 6-foot-9 fifth-year senior who missed all last season with a back injury, provides a 3-point shooting threat.

Conference realignment has hit the league pretty hard. This offseason, Northern Kentucky became the fifth team to leave the conference sine 2011. The A-Sun added nomad NJIT, the last remaining independent in Division I basketball, as its eighth member. The Highlanders won’t be just a placeholder, they’ll be contenders. Like Driscoll, Jim Engles brings back four starters, including Damon Lynn, a diminutive scoring guard who posted 20 or more points 15 times in 2014-15. Lynn was the star in NJIT’s upset win over Michigan last season. The Highlanders also benefit from the return of Terrence Smith, the 6-foot-6 forward, who missed the season due to injury.

Lipscomb finished below .500 a season ago, but all-A-Sun wing Josh Williams should lead the Bison to their first winning season in five years. To be a contender, the focus needs to shift to the defensive end, where the Bison allowed 70 or more points in the final 14 games of the season. Jacksonville, a 10-win team, brings back 94 percent of its scoring. The Dolphins should be a darkhorse in the A-Sun.

MORE: 2015-16 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

COACH’S TAKE

  • Favorite: “North Florida. Since they won it last year and went to the NCAA tournament. I know they have the majority of their team back, and looking at their stats they shoot the ball really well, they pass the ball really well. They’re a pretty effective, efficient team.”
  • Sleeper: “Lipscomb is poised to have a pretty good year. I’d expect [Jacksonville] to be pretty good, too.”
  • Star to watch: “There’s Josh Williams from Lipscomb, the two players from North Florida (Dallas Moore and Beau Beech). Julian DeBose had really good summer with one of the USA teams. Damon Lynn should certainly be the conversation. Until the season actually gets going it’s tough to really tell.”

REALIGNMENT MOVES 

In: NJIT
Out: Northern Kentucky

PRESEASON ATLANTIC SUN PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Damon Lynn, NJIT

The 5-foot-11 guard averaged 17.5 points, 3.7 assists and 3.0 rebounds per game as a junior for the Highlanders. Lynn recorded 20 points (15 in the second half) in a win over then-No. 17 Michigan on Dec. 6. NJIT’s marathon man helped lead the Highlanders to the semifinals of the CollegeInsider.com Tournament, averaging 19.5 points in 39.5 minutes per game.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON ATLANTIC SUN TEAM:

  • Kori Babineaux, Jacksonville: The 6-foot-4 guard was top-five in the A-Sun in scoring, assists and steals a season ago.
  • Julian DeBose, Florida Gulf Coast: The only double-digit scorer returning for Dunk City. He played with Kansas this summer in the World University Games.
  • Dallas Moore, North Florida: The Ospreys top scorer and assist man earned all-Atlantic Sun first team honors last season after averaging 15.9 points and 3.9 assists per game. Beau Beech is also a strong candidate.
  • Josh Williams, Lipscomb: With Ty Greene graduating, Williams is the conference’s top scorer at 16.9 points per game.

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @ASunMBB

PREDICTED FINISH

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