A long way from one win
Jacksonville University athleticsSophomore Ben Smith has been one of the gems that Cliff Warren has discovered.
Cliff Warren always had been all about winning. As a point guard in the late 1980s, he helped Mount Saint Mary's to its first winning record as a Division I school. In 11 years as an assistant coach at the Mount, Siena and Georgia Tech, his teams collected five NCAA bids (including GT's trek to the national title game in 2004), as well as three NIT nods.
So when he first took the reins of his own program two summers ago in Jacksonville, Warren wasn't prepared for what was about to happen.
The Jacksonville Dolphins won their first Atlantic Sun game of 2005-06, handily beating Division I hatchling North Florida 88-71 in a Dec. 2 city game. At the time, nobody had any idea that the Dolphins would have to wait more than 11 months for their next victory. Warren's squad absorbed 24 straight defeats to finish the season with an abysmal 1-26 mark.
"Never in my history with any sporting event had I only won a single game," Warren said with a pained exhale. "Pickup basketball, rec-league basketball, kickball, softball nothing. At no time in my life had I ever gone through anything like that."
As the losses accumulated, doubts about his ability to lead a team crept into Warren's mind.
"There were several times when I questioned myself," Warren said. "Sometimes, I didn't know if I had what it took. I'm new to being a head coach. But listening to other head coaches who've been around for a long time, they kept me encouraged during the one-win season. They told me to just keep doing things the right way and good things will happen."
That failed first campaign provided one very good thing, the emergence of 6-foot-7 forward Marcus Allen, a rookie who earned a spot on the A-Sun's all-freshman team and led the Dolphins in glass-cleaning with 6.5 rebounds per game. And Warren, who gained respect around the ACC as a recruiter and developer at Tech, found two more gems in 5-10 Ben Smith and 6-6 Lehmon Colbert.
Colbert and Smith made the all-freshman team in 2006-07, combining for 20.6 points per contest, while Allen led the squad in boards for the second straight season. The effect of greater talent was a greater win total -- Jacksonville won seven of eight in late January and early February, then claimed a No. 3 seed in the league tourney. At 15-14 (11-7 A-Sun), the Dolphins enjoyed the nation's greatest improvement last season with 14 more wins, an uptick that landed the squad in the NCAA's top 20 turnarounds of all-time.
"The No. 1 reason for our turnaround was finding good players," Warren said. "We improved our recruiting, which improved out talent level, which improved our roster. I'm no different than anybody else. You're only as good as the players that you have."
Perhaps the No. 2 reason was a change of scenery. After seven years of playing on campus, the Dolphins moved their home games back downtown to the site of the program's greatest historical moments. At Veterans Memorial Arena, Jacksonville went 12-1, its only home loss a late-season drop to eventual league champion Belmont.
"We had a very good record at home," Warren said. "And I think it was because of the support we had in the community. Not just the students and administration from here on campus, but the community as a whole. People in the city came out to see this team play. Our players looked up in the stands and saw the city behind them, so they played that much harder."
It's a city that has been starved for sports success, sporadic Jaguars playoff appearances notwithstanding. Some locals with long memories will tell anybody who will listen about the days when the Fish achieved national prominence, scoring triple figures on a regular basis and reaching the 1970 Final Four. Back then, the Dolphins ruled downtown Jacksonville, playing to sold-out crowds at the old Memorial Coliseum. That building is long demolished now, but the memories linger.
"People tell me about the glory days of playing downtown at the Coliseum," Warren said. "They'll come up to me at the grocery store or the bank and tell me about this game or that game. I hear stories from former players who played down there. I have regular conversations with Artis Gilmore, Otis Smith, Dee Brown, Rex Morgan. All those guys tell me, 'Hey coach, if you get it going again, the town will support you. People will come out.' "
Due to the Dolphins' growing reputation as a team on the rise with an intimidating home court, Warren has had trouble luring nonconference guests this time around. So Jacksonville won't get to spend a lot of time at home early on. It will spend December out on the road, where the team went 3-12 a year ago. Along the way, the squad will visit half of last year's Final Four: Florida and Georgetown.
"We'll get a lot of exposure," Warren said. "We want to recruit kids out of Florida. We're trying to recruit in the areas we're playing in, expand our base. And coming into conference play, you want to have played the toughest competition. Hopefully, your players will be battle-tested."
At this point of the Dolphins' development, what matters is their conference record and their ability to win three tourney games in March. But the bottom line is this: After following up a one-win, confidence-crushing campaign with a rocket-shot through the A-Sun standings, Warren and his Dolphins are back on track.
"Within the state, most people recognize that we had a tremendous turnaround year," Warren said. "Outside the state, coaches talk. We all pay attention. We all know when programs turn things around. So that's the type of response we're getting. Folks know we're moving in the right direction. But, and I'll keep saying this until we win the whole thing, we still have a lot of work to do."
Two seasons ago, Kennesaw State and North Florida rose into the NCAA's top flight with the help of the Atlantic Sun Conference. This season, two more schools graduate from Division II and join the league: South Carolina-Upstate and Florida Gulf Coast.
But FGCU is new on many more levels. With an official founding date of 1991, it now is the youngest university of 338 in Division I (Liberty, which opened 20 years earlier, now is second).
"They did break ground in 1991, but the university actually opened its doors in 1997," said coach Dave Balza, who became the Eagles' first leader five years ago. "We're celebrating our 10th anniversary this year."
FGCU's uptempo style (which will fit just fine in the run-and-gun A-Sun) has translated into plenty of quick success at the lower levels. Balza has overseen 114 victories in five seasons. The team also earned a berth in the 2005 Division II NCAA Tournament, the first year the school was eligible for inclusion.
"One of the reasons I was excited about this job was we get to build history," said Balza, who served as an assistant at Cleveland State in the 1990s. "People came out in our inaugural year five years ago and didn't know what to expect, two wins or three wins, but we went out and won 23 games. I'm not sure if we'll have that kind of success here in Division I, but we're jumping in full-bore, hoping to make this transition an exciting and a winning one."
Moving on up
You could say the A-Sun has become the unofficial feeder league for teams coming from Division II. One-third of its membership still is in the transitional phase and therefore ineligible to play in the conference tourney.
As for the eight other schools, none have ever won a Division I NCAA Tournament game. All three of the Trans-America/Atlantic Sun bracket busters -- Arkansas-Little Rock (1986), Charleston (1997) and Georgia State (2001) -- have moved on to other, higher-profile conference homes.
Other than two-time defending champ Belmont, you have to go back to Mercer's 1984-85 squad to find a current member who has earned the league's autobid. After Winthrop beat Notre Dame last March to give the Big South its second NCAA win against 16 losses (.111), the A-Sun's 3-27 (.100) all-time bracket record sunk to second-worst among the 31 D-I conferences (NEC, .077).
But the A-Sun's skies aren't all cloudy and gray. The league was able to salvage a ray of pride from last season, thrashing the competition in the unofficial 2007 Atlantic Sun-Big South Challenge. The A-Sun won eight of the 10 nonconference meetings between the two leagues, the only dropped decisions being Gardner-Webb's 65-51 loss to High Point and Campbell's 87-80 trip-up versus Radford.
ESPN has only five main networks (six if you include ESPN360), and there are only so many regional TV sports outlets out there. There just is not much room on the tube for A-Sun basketball.
So, like some other mid-major conferences around the country, the 29-year-old league is taking matters into its own hands. This season will see the launch of broadband service asun.tv, which will allow fans to watch all the conference hoops they want, either live or on demand.
"Every team's home games and every conference game will be up there," league commissioner Ted Gumbart said. "We've made a commitment as a conference to deliver the whole schedule. "
Butts in the seats
The league might have finished a distant 27th in the national RPI table, but the fan support for the fast-paced "A-Fun" outperformed its on-court rating. In all, 221,382 people came through the turnstiles last season, for an average attendance of 2,013, tying the conference for 22nd among the 31 Division I conferences.
The women's side of A-Sun basketball, however, is a very different story. Those games averaged just 467 souls in attendance, second-fewest in the land. So for the first time in its history, the conference will follow the lead of leagues like the MEAC, SWAC and Patriot League, and hold Saturday men's-women's doubleheaders.
* NCAA Tournament
# NIT participant
Senior guard Justin Hare (14.3 ppg), a key component of both the 2006 and 2007 championship teams, is the undisputed star here. But a huge part of Belmont's repeat NCAA trip last season can be credited to its center platoon of 6-11 Boomer Herndon and 6-10 Andrew Preston, who each averaged about 17 minutes and combined for 19.2 ppg and 9.9 rpg. Those fresh legs helped the Bruins achieve the 24th-best 2-point field goal defense in the land (44 percent), but the two-headed monster has run out of eligibility. Matthew Dotson, a 6-8 junior who averaged 7 ppg and 4.5 rpg, will have to step up to give Belmont a third straight title.
It's contradictory that a team named the Fighting Camels has been one of the quickest-paced squads in recent years. But coach Robbie Laing is taking steps to stop hiding its shortcomings with willy-nilly running. Last season's version, led by versatile 6-6 frosh Jonathan Rodriguez (17.3 ppg, 8.8 rpg), improved for the second straight season after bottoming out with a 2-25 mark in 2004-05. The Camels also are coming off their first tourney win in 11 years and have established homecourt dominance in its tiny, sweaty Carter Gym (12-3 at home).
East Tennessee State
The Buccaneers easily have had the most talent in the league in their first two seasons in the A-Sun, which they joined after dropping out of the SoCon in 2005 when the school cancelled football. But that talent hasn't helped ETSU in two tourney flameouts on its home floor; last season, a 27-point drop to Belmont in the title game sent the regular-season champs to the NIT. Good news: The tourney is in Nashville this season, and the Bucs have plenty of bang with the returning A-Sun Player of the Year, junior guard Courtney Pigram (18 ppg), and future star Mike Smith, a 6-6 sophomore who scored 11.1 ppg last season.
Florida Gulf Coast
In 2006-07, their last season in Division II, the Eagles went 0-3 against Division I teams. But after two season-opening blowouts at Drexel and Penn, their third game against top-flight competition resulted in a respectable 14-point loss at eventual Sweet 16 participant Butler on Feb. 13. "The guys had a good feeling coming away from that game that they could play with high-level teams," said coach Dave Balza, whose team came into the Butler game on a 14-game D-II winning streak. "So we cruised through the rest of our schedule and won the remainder of our games." Even though the Eagles ended with a 27-6 record, the then-D-II independent was frozen out of the eight-team NCAA Tournament South regional.
This league's primary export is hoops, so G-Webb has been satisfying its football jones in the Big South since 2002. The school will move all of its sports there next summer, so this will be the A-Sun swan song for the Runnin' Bulldogs from Boiling Springs, N.C. They'll play out their string in the second stage of a rebuilding project -- very little clicked last season in a 9-21 campaign that came in the wake of six graduation losses from a team with two straight winning seasons. Senior guard Thomas Sanders, an 11-point scorer last year, will be the Dawgs' focal point.
After two straight recruiting classes that yielded league all-freshman selections, Cliff Warren quickly is gaining a reputation as the A-Sun's best recruiter. This season, Warren brings in five more promising preps, a class that includes 6-4 Paul Kolheim and 6-5 Ayron Hardy. But the most intriguing newcomer is Philly native Andre McMillan, who at 23 years old is long since ineligible for all-freshman anything. "He was in the Navy for three years out of high school before two years in junior college," Warren said of his 6-2 junior guard. "What we're getting there is a very mature student-athlete."
Division II champions in 2004, the Owls have two more seasons to go before becoming eligible for the Division I NCAA Tournament. But they've been enjoying their role as spoilers, notching .500 conference records in their first pair of seasons at this level. Coach Tony Ingle has a pair of senior scoring forwards in Shuan Stegall and Ronell Wooten, who combined for 29.1 combined ppg last season, and the wise head Owl has blueprints on the table for a pair of skyscrapers in sophomore Alex Cornett (6-11) and redshirt freshman Jon Allison (7-1).
Although the Bison defended their Allen Arena homeland with a 13-1 record, last season was full of missed opportunities. The conference favorites struggled to shoot (just 40.6 percent in league games), won only four of their 14 road games and went out in the semis to ETSU. The defensive door-slamming backcourt tandem of Trey Williams and Brian Fisk now is gone, but leading scorer and rebounder Eddie Ard (15 ppg, 5.8 rpg) is back for his senior season. Will Ard get much support from the rest of the returning cast? The second-leading returning scorer, 6-7 senior Jason Hopkins, tallied only six points per contest.
Mark Slonaker's squad really hasn't been much of a factor since a 23-win season in 2002-03, but today's Bears have the talent to to rise through the ranks again. James Florence, a game-breaking sophomore guard, broached the 25-point mark eight times in a season that gained him league Freshman of the Year honors and landed him on the all-A-Sun first team. He was one of two freshmen to lead their conference in scoring (that guy from Texas was the other), tallying 19.3 points per contest. But unlike Kevin Durant, Florence is coming back, and he is bringing senior swingman Shaddean Aaron (15.9 ppg) and junior jumper Calvin Henry (9.4 ppg, 9.1 rpg) with him.
The first two seasons of Division I life at North Florida have been no fun whatsoever. The Ospreys have won nine games against 48 losses, 34 of those drops coming in conference play. Coach Matt Kilcullen will bring in transfers to stop the bleeding, including East Carolina ex-pat swingman Tom Hammonds (the former NBA player's like-named son) and 6-6 ex-Morehead Stater Stan Januska. And things already are looking up. The new-look North Florida squad recently completed a weekend exhibition swing in Canada, where it won two games. That's one fewer than all of last season.
Fun facts about the newbie Spartans: The school was known as USC-Spartanburg until 2004, and its cagers won the 1982 NAIA national championship. Coach Eddie Payne has logged time as an assistant at South Carolina, Clemson and East Carolina, and in five seasons, he led Upstate to two Division II NCAA Tournaments out of the Peach Belt Conference (former home of Kennesaw State). Payne and his team will spend a lot of time on airplanes this season, as the Spartans will visit Iowa State, Duquesne, the Sun Bowl Tournament in El Paso and the Top of the World Classic in Fairbanks, Alaska.
After 7-1 behemoth Chief Kickingstallionsims transferred to Alabama State last summer, the Hatters found themselves with a huge vacuum in the paint. So the 2006-07 team ended up as the A-Sun's worst rebounding squad, averaging just 28 per contest. The remaining players couldn't defend too well either, and Stetson dropped 20 games. Whether or not the Hatters can earn their first winning season since 2000-01 hinges on whether or not a decent sophomore core from last year's team progresses, led by now-junior Garfield Blair (team-leading 13.1 ppg and 5.7 rpg last season).
Next March will be two in a row for Rick Byrd's Belmont team, but check out how high of a seed Joe Lunardi thinks the Bruins will receive.
-- Joe Lunardi
For all the 2007 ShootArounds, click here.