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Team preview: Florida Atlantic

For the most comprehensive previews available on all 335 Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college basketball, the 2011-12 Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbookonline.com or call 1-877-807-4857.

COACH AND PROGRAM

Defending Sun Belt regular season champion Florida Atlantic returns four starters, but veteran coach Mike Jarvis quickly rejects the notion that the Owls are sure to be as good -- or better -- when they're replacing Brett Royster.

Last season FAU tallied the most victories (21) and consecutive wins (eight) since joining Division I. It beat Mississippi State and USF, which helped the Owls reach the NIT and helped coach Mike Jarvis win Sun Belt and NABC District 24 Coach-of-the-Year honors.

FAU is one of the first teams mentioned when coaches size up the league, which causes Jarvis to wonder if they're forgetting the size of the void in his lane. Royster was a two-time Sun Belt defensive player of the year and is the league's all-time blocked shots leader. He finished with 301 blocks, including 97 as a senior. Royster owns FAU's three best single-season blocked shots totals.

"We had Brett Royster in the back to make up for all the rest of the sins we were committing on defense," said Jarvis, who was also a finalist for the Ben Jobe Award, given to the top minority coach.

Florida Atlantic Owls

Relying on Royster wasn't part of a philosophy in which perimeter threats were essentially funneled toward Royster.

"I wish I could say we were doing it on purpose, but we were not," Jarvis said. "We couldn't defend anybody on the perimeter some nights. That's why he got a lot of blocked shots. But he also had great timing and shot-blocking ability.

"Trust me, it was not by design. I think the only time in my life I ever intentionally had guys driving to the basket trying to shoot was when I had Patrick Ewing in high school."

PLAYERS

The Owls' defense should have some margin for error thanks to an experienced arsenal. They essentially have two point guards in explosive 5-7 junior Raymond Taylor (14.0 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 3.9 apg) and 5-11 senior Alex Tucker (7.4 ppg, 2.2 rpg, 4.3 apg), and 6-2 junior Greg Gantt (14.0 ppg, 3.9 rpg) was the Owls' leading scorer last season. Tucker had a better than a 2-1 assist-to-turnover ratio (136-61), and Taylor's was in the ballpark (121-69). Taylor also created a lot of easy baskets while leading the team with 1.5 steals per game.

Some Sun Belt coaches see Taylor as one of three or four premier league MVP candidates. Of course, Tucker might be the team's best quarterback. Tucker's most exciting assist thus far might have been a dish on the block to Royster for a game-winner against FIU after a coast-to-coast drive. It was fitting that Tucker was instrumental in what led to a raucous celebration. There was virtually no atmosphere when Jarvis and Tucker arrived in 2008.

"It's one thing to talk about a kid and say he's going to help you build something -- because let's face it, we're still in the process of trying to build a consistent, winning program," Jarvis said. "It's gonna take some more time. Alex didn't have very much to play with his first year. We were awful, but he hung in there. And then you bring in Ray, and now between the two of them we've got pretty good point guard play.

"And there's a lot of times those two guys have -- and can -- play together. It's tough on us sometimes because we're so small, but it also does put a lot of pressure on opponents. And if we get ahead, then that's when we can be very, very good. Last year we were able to do that. I mean we played really well when we were in the lead, and that was mainly because it was very difficult for teams to try and match up with us."

Gantt's perimeter shooting suffered a sophomore slump. He shot 31.9 percent (58-of-182) from three-point range after shooting 39 percent (85-of-218) and averaging 15.6 points as a freshman.

"Honestly, he didn't shoot with the same confidence as he did his first year, believe it or not," Jarvis said.

Gantt responded by having what Jarvis considered the Owls' most productive offseason. Tucker also worked especially hard throughout the spring and summer.

"Greg has come back determined to show that he still has his three-point shot as well as now the fact that he can score in the lane," Jarvis said. "And Alex Tucker has really, really worked on his offense. So now he is gonna hopefully become a real threat as he looks to shoot the ball, because there was a time he wouldn't shoot the ball."

Another perimeter threat that struggled a bit last season was Shavar Richardson (5.9 ppg, 1.0 rpg). The 6-3 senior shot 33.7 percent (28-of-83) behind the arc, acceptable, but not up to his standards.

FAU added perimeter punch with 6-4 wing Omari Grier (13.9 ppg), who shot 50 percent from three-point range while helping Maine Central Institute to a title in the talented New England Prep League.

"The kid is a great three-point shooter," Jarvis said. "He's our best pure shooter. I expect him to play a lot. He's gone to prep school, so he's not a typical freshman coming in. Right now I think he's more of a catch-and-shoot guy, but in time -- just like Greg -- he will become a guy that can also get to the foul line. But I'll take a catch-and-shoot guy anytime, especially in this day and age."

Jarvis' stable of guards includes 6-3 sophomore Dennis Mavin (5.2 ppg, 2.2 rpg). He started 12 games and averaged 13.8 minutes as a freshman.

Kore White (8.2 ppg, 5.0 rpg), a 6-8 junior, is the most experienced frontcourt player. In his first season after transferring from Marshall, White was second on the team in rebounding and blocked shots (31) in 2010-11. White made 7-of-18 three-pointers (.389) and shot 48.5 percent from the field. Unfortunately, he also shot 48.5 percent (32-of-66) from the free-throw line.

Junior 6-6 forward Jordan McCoy (5.3 ppg, 3.7 rpg) started five games and averaged 18.8 minutes last season. Andre Mattison (1.1 ppg, 1.0 rpg), a 6-7 junior, has made progress after appearing in 20 games as a sophomore.

UC Davis transfer Jelani Floyd is a 6-9 senior who could possibly get two seasons to play. Jarvis thought he'd made quite a catch in 6-10 Miami-Dade College transfer Julian Sargeant, but he wasn't cleared academically. Kelvin Penn (12.0 ppg, 10.0 rpg), a 6-7 freshman from Massanutten Military Academy, could conceivably end up in the rotation.

"Kore White is a guy -- I'm expecting him to almost double his production from a year ago, because he's that talented," Jarvis said. "Jordan McCoy will continue to be a valuable asset, because he brings a lot of energy and he can rebound. And then guys who haven't played many minutes, like Andre Mattison and a freshman like Kelvin Penn, should help us.

"Kelvin is an incredible young man. He's still very young but has a great body and works incredibly hard. He's gonna probably be asked to play a little bit more than I probably would've liked his first year."

Jarvis' primary concern is which forward -- or two -- can efficiently absorb some of Royster's production. Better defense on the perimeter would help fill the void, too.

Jarvis is pleased that 7-1 Dragan Sekelja, a transfer from Baylor who will sit out this season, will be able to practice with the team.

"He's a legitimate 7-footer who can really play," Jarvis said. "He was one of the best young players in Europe -- in Croatia -- a couple of years ago."

BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS

BACKCOURT: A+

BENCH/DEPTH: B+

FRONTCOURT: B-

INTANGIBLES: A

FAU will be battle-tested when league play begins. A stringent non-conference schedule includes visits to Kansas, Mississippi State, Miami and USF, and a home game with George Mason. Three of the first four conference games are on the road at Louisiana, Arkansas State and UALR.

Regardless of opposition, there won't be many teams that can dictate pace against the Owls. If FAU doesn't develop post depth, it might be tempting to implement a lot of 1-4 lineups like Bruce Pearl employed while pressing and playing 6-4 power forwards during his first couple of years at Tennessee.

Florida Atlantic has the type of veteran backcourt that often marches into Madness, especially with a dean on the bench like Jarvis.

For the most comprehensive previews available on all 335 Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college basketball, the 2011-12 Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbookonline.com or call 1-877-807-4857.