Thursday, December 31, 2009

Putting a Bow on the Non-Conference Season

In basketball the ball gets tossed up to start games, but tonight, its a ball drop that will serve as the start of a new year, so with that back "drop" and with conference play set to begin in earnest on Saturday, it's time a review of the non-conference portion of the 2009-10 Atlantic Sun Men's Basketball season.

The season began on Friday, Nov. 13 and the day proved lucky for the league, as five of the six schools competing earned victories led by Mercer and Belmont winning opening games of neutral-floor tournaments. The reigning champs, ETSU, opened its defense one day winning with a home contest against former SoCon rival Appalachian State. The day began with a memorial service for former Buccaneer Seth Coy, who died in the offseason.

Campbell jumped out to a 3-0 start and welcomed in opponents from Conference USA (East Carolina) and the Atlantic Coast Conference (Virginia Tech) into Buies Creek, N.C. for the first time in long periods. East Carolina had not played in Buies Creek since the 1940's and no ACC team had ever made the trip to Campbell's campus. While the Hokies pulled out a victory. The Camels downed the Pirates, 74-68. In five non-conference games, Campbell owns a 4-1 record.

On the day after Thanksgiving, "Black Friday" almost became "Black A-Sunday" as ETSU gave the conference it's sixth win against the SEC in the last three season and two more schools, Mercer and Jacksonville almost pulled off upsets of BCS schools. ETSU turned in the most accurate 3-point shooting night in the country, up to that point, among those schools making at least 10 3-pointers in a game, as the Buccaneers shot an outstanding 11-for-14, good for a 78.6 clip. Justin Tubbs made five in six tires and Micah Williams connected on all three of his tries. Tommy Hubbard only tried two 3-pointers, but hit on 11-of-17 overall, part of a 32-point, 10-rebound performance that earned the junior a Player of the Week award.

Who turned in the top individual Performance during the non-conference season?
James Florence, Mercer at Georgia Tech (40 pts, 14-20 FG)
Adnan Hodzic, Lipscomb at Arizona (34 pts, 13 rebs, 14-21 FG)
Tommy Hubbard, ETSU at Arkansas (32 pts, 10 rebs, 11-17 FG)

Individual performances shined in the two near misses as Mercer's James Florence poured in a career-high 40 points at Georgia Tech. He shot 14-of-20 from the floor in becoming the first player in the the league to reach the 40-point mark since Troy’s Lemyan Wilson scored 43 against FAU on Jan. 12, 2002, in double overtime and the first to do so in regulation since Georgia State’s Thomas Terrell scored 42 against Jacksonville on Jan. 8, 2001. Florence became the first A-Sun player to score 40 in a non-conference game since UCF’s Mark Jones scored 42 in Dec. 18, 1997 against St. Thomas. In Columbia, S.C. Ben Smith tried to lead Jacksonville to a win at South Carolina as he scored 31 points and dished out seven assists, but ultimately, the Gamecocks survived, 97-93.

As the calendar turned to December, Belmont, a school replacing four senior starters, took a turn as the league's hottest school, winning four non-conference games as part of a six-game win streak. The Bruins' new inside tandem of Mick Hedgepeth and Scott Saunders combined to shoot 72 percent from the floor during the win streak (36-for-50) while averaging 24.6 points and 11.0 rebounds.

FGCU also started on a three-game non-conference streak of its own on Dec. 12 against a famous first-year coach. The Eagles defeated Isiah Thomas' FIU Golden Panthers and followed up with a road win at North Carolina Central and culminated with a home triumph against DePaul, out of the Big East, on Dec. 22. The win marked the first for an A-Sun school against a Big East foe since Belmont opened the 2007-08 season with a road win against Cincinnati, 86-75, on Nov. 9, 2007. The last home win by an A-Sun school against a Big East school came on Dec. 3, 20002 when FAU defeated Miami (FL).

Which A-Sun team turned in the best performance in the non-conference season?
Campbell vs Appalachian State, 12/30 (W, 92-63, 58.6 FG Pct, 52.6 3-pt FG, 28 Assists)
ETSU vs Arkansas, 11/27 (W, 94-85, 59.3 FG Pct, 11 3-pt FG, 78.6 3-pt FG Pct)
Jacksonville at UCF Holiday Classic (2 10-pt wins vs RPI top 100, Ben Smith MVP) Jacksonville at UCF Holiday Classic (2 10-pt wins vs RPI top 100, Ben Smith MVP)
UNF at South Mississippi Christmas Classic (3 wins in 3 days, 2nd A-Sun team to ever do so, held opp to 52 PPG)

Two performances in holiday tournaments highlighted the final two weeks of 2009. The conference's pair of schools out of "The River City" provided the moments, starting with UNF at the South Mississippi Christmas Classic. The Ospreys opened the tournament having won three consecutive games only once as a Division I program. However, after defeating Canisius and New Orleans in their first two games, the Ospreys defeated Southern Miss, 53-46, the claim the title.

In winning the tournament, UNF became only the second Atlantic Sun team in league history to win a three-game, regular-season tournament in the span of three days. From Dec. 21-23, 2000 (the same three days in December as UNF’s wins), Georgia
State won the Nike Festival in Honolulu by defeating the host Hawaii, UAB and Cal-State Northridge, kick-starting a season that ended 29-5 with A-Sun regular-season and tournament titles and the most recent NCAA Tournament win for the conference.

One week later, Jacksonville stayed within the state, traveling to Orlando for the UCF Holiday Classic. The Dolphins took on Buffalo and former A-Sun rival UCF, a pair of RPI top 100 opponents and emerged the victor in both, led by Smith. The A-Sun's Preseason Player of the Year averaged 21.5 points while shooting 50 percent from the field. The Dolphins finished the non-conference portion of the year having played one of the 10 toughest non-conference schedules in nation, according the the USA Sagarin rankings.

Two players reached the 1,000-point plateau during the season and one reached ever higher marks during these opening marks. Stetson's A.J. Smith and Lipscomb's Adnan Hodzic topped the 1,000-point mark. Hodzic continued to excel as the league's top interior player as he averaged almost 23 points per game in non-conference action while shooting close to 60 percent. His top performance came in his most recent game as he scored a career-high 34 points at Arizona, extending his streak of double-digit scoring games to nations-best 37 straight games. He also pulled down 13 rebounds. Hodzic's performance got overshadowed by the finish, as Arizona's Nic Wise hit a game-winning 3-pointer as time expired.

Mercer's Florence topped two milestones in the Bears' final non-conference game, at Charlotte. In one game, Florence surpassed Sam Mitchell as the school's all-time leading scorer and he also reached the 2,000-point mark. He joins Centenary's Willie Jackson and ETSU's Courtney Pigram as the only three in league history to score 2,000 points.

Who has been the top A-Sun player during the non-conference season?
Daniel Emerson, Mercer
James Florence, Mercer
Adnan Hodzic, Lipscomb
Tommy Hubbard, ETSU
Jonathan Rodriguez, Campbell

Did we leave a team or individual performance, let us know in the comment section below. The conference race promises to be an exciting one. Catch all the conference action on ASun.TV and look for the return of the league's CSS television package on Friday, Jan. 8 with UNF and FGCU.

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