Atlantic Sun Summer Sessions: Men's Basketball Edition
Wednesday, July 6, 2011
By Atlantic Sun Conference
Atlantic Sun Summer Sessions: Men's Basketball Edition

MACON, Ga. – Men’s basketball in the Atlantic Sun Conference continued its steady climb up the RPI ladder during the 2010-11 season by finishing the year as the 17th ranked conference. With eight of the 11 teams equaling or improving their RPI from 2009-10, the A-Sun produced once of its most successful seasons in a number of years and finished ahead of 15 other conferences including the Ohio Valley (OVC), Southern, Big South, Mid-American (MAC), Summit and Sun Belt.

ETSU and Belmont both finished in the RPI Top-100 with the Bruins taking the 56th spot and the Buccaneers landing at No. 89. The biggest improvement in RPI came from UNF by jumping from 236th in 2010 to 152nd this season as the Ospreys advanced to the A-Sun Championship Final for the first time in the program’s history. Lipscomb, Jacksonville, FGCU and Stetson all saw progress in its RPI standing, as well.

The advancement of the A-Sun’s RPI saw instant results as Jacksonville, ETSU and Belmont all reached a national tournament following the A-Sun Championship. The three teams in postseason play tied the A-Sun record set in the 1988 and 2004 seasons.

Given the opportunity to continue their seasons, ETSU and Jacksonville didn’t waste the chance as both teams earned victories in the Tournament, which marked the first time in A-Sun history that two teams earned postseason victories.

The Buccaneers defeated two opponents in the CIT – Furman and Ohio – after finishing second in the A-Sun regular season standings. Behind the play of A-Sun Player of the Year, Mike Smith, the Bucs advanced to the semifinals against Iona – the furthest an A-Sun team has progressed in postseason play since 1987.

Jacksonville took to the road for its CIT win, defeating East Carolina before falling to Southern Methodist University in the second round. With the win against the Pirates, JU became the first team since 1996-97 to earn postseason victories in back-to-back seasons as the Dolphins defeated Arizona State in the NIT last season. The three combined postseason wins for the A-Sun is the most since 1987.

Belmont had unarguably the best regular season by an A-Sun team as the Bruins won 30 games – a league record – en route to their fourth A-Sun Championship in the past six seasons. Along the way, Bruins Head Coach Rick Byrd earned his 600th career victory and 500th win as the Bruins’ front man.

During the 2010-11 season, A-Sun teams produced against teams from all levels of competition by earning six victories against BCS-level conferences. Stetson and Kennesaw State opened the year in November with wins against Wake Forest and Georgia Tech from the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC). The A-Sun then turned its sights on the Southeastern Conference (SEC) as ETSU, Campbell and Jacksonville combined for four road victories. The Bucs downed Mississippi State and the Camels defeated Auburn, while the Dolphins earned the biggest win of the non-conference season by trumping No. 20 Florida in the O’Connell Center after picking up a win against Auburn earlier in the season.

As a whole, the A-Sun increased its non-conference win total by 12.5 percent with nine teams equaling or increasing their wins from the previous season. Six teams earned at least five non-conference victories.

Following the conclusion of the 2010-11 season, three programs hired new head coaches to lead their programs. Stetson, which finished 10th in the A-Sun, hired longtime Belmont assistant Casey Alexander, while eighth-place finisher, FGCU, turned to Florida State assistant Andy Enfield entering the Eagles first eligible season for the A-Sun Championship. Kennesaw State, the ninth team in the A-Sun last season, capped the off-season with the announcement of Lewis Preston, a Penn State assistant, as their new head coach.

In the 2011-12 season, all 10 A-Sun teams will be eligible for the A-Sun Championship after FGCU and USC Upstate both completed the NCAA Division I Transition period this season. The Eagles and Spartans – led by A-Sun Freshman of the Year, Torrey Craig – look to make an immediate impact in the conference as the A-Sun transitions to a new era of men’s basketball.

Belmont, Lipscomb, Mercer and USC Upstate all put at least seven men’s basketball student-athletes on the A-Sun All-Academic team with the Bruins at the top with 11. Belmont’s Mick Hedgepeth and Scott Saunders both earned academic honors as Hedgepeth was named the NACDA Scholar-Athlete of the Year, while Saunders landed on the Capital One/CoSIDA Academic All-American team.