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October 11, 2011

League preview: Atlantic Sun

We continue with our league breakdowns for the upcoming season; we're working backward from league No. 32 to our top-ranked league.

The breakdowns will become more in-depth as the leagues get bigger.

22. Atlantic Sun

By Mike Huguenin

This is Belmont's final season in the Atlantic Sun before moving to the Ohio Valley Conference, and the Bruins look as if they will run away with the league title in their last go-round.

Belmont went 30-5 last season and won the regular-season title by three games last season. It again should cruise this season behind coach Rick Byrd and a deep, talented roster; the Bruins return four starters and 10 lettermen. The Bruins have the league's best player in G Ian Clark and, unlike most low-major teams, also have excellent size in the middle with Cs Mick Hedgepeth and Scott Saunders, who began his career at Rice. The Hedgepeth/Saunders duo combined to average 20.7 points and 11.1 rebounds.

Belmont will have the opportunity to make some national noise early in the season, with games against Duke and Memphis in November and a home-and-home set with Marshall, which should be the No. 2 team in Conference USA, in December.

The race for second should be a good one. East Tennessee, Jacksonville and fast-rising North Florida should be Belmont's main competition.

While ETSU and Jacksonville each lost key players, UNF returns the top five scorers off a team that advanced to the league tourney final. ETSU welcomes the return of rugged G Tommy Hubbard, an excellent rebounder who missed last season with an injury. JU is well-coached by Cliff Warren but is in danger of being passed in its own city by UNF.

The other six teams have serious flaws, though Kennesaw State has one of the league's best players in F Markeith Cummings. There also are three new coaches in this group: Casey Alexander at Stetson, Andy Enfield at Florida Gulf Coast and Lewis Preston at Kennesaw State.

Former league member Campbell departed for the Big South in the offseason, but Florida Gulf Coast and USC Upstate now are eligible for the postseason after completing their transition periods. That means there will be 10 teams vying for the eight spots in the league tourney.

C Mick Hedgepeth, Belmont (6-9/235, Sr.)
F Torrey Craig, USC Upstate (6-6/215, Soph.)
F Markeith Cummings, Kennesaw State (6-7/230, Jr.)
G Ian Clark, Belmont (6-3/175, Jr.)
G Tommy Hubbard, East Tennessee (6-4/210, Sr.)

F Isiah Brown, East Tennessee (6-8/210, Sr.)
F/G Jordan Burgason, Lipscomb (6-3/190, Sr.)
F Delwan Graham, Jacksonville (6-7/225, Sr.)
G Christophe Varidel, Fla. Gulf Coast (6-3/175, Soph.)
G/F Jerron Granberry, North Florida (6-4/225, Jr.)

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Belmont G Ian Clark

NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR: Lipscomb G Deonte Alexander (6-1/175, Jr.; junior college transfer)

1. Belmont
2. North Florida
3. East Tennessee
4. Jacksonville
5. Kennesaw State
6. Lipscomb
7. Mercer
8. USC Upstate
9. Florida Gulf Coast
10. Stetson

Best frontcourt: Belmont
Best backcourt: Belmont
Coach on the rise:
North Florida's Matthew Driscoll
Coach on the hot seat:
Lipscomb's Scott Sanderson

New coaches: Casey Alexander at Stetson (had been an assistant at Belmont), Andy Enfield at Florida Gulf Coast (had been an assistant at Florida State), Lewis Preston at Kennesaw State (had been an assistant at Penn State)
Regular-season winner last season: Belmont
Tourney winner last season: Belmont
League RPI rank in each of past 3 seasons: 17th in 2010-11, 25th in 2009-10, 27th in 2008-09
Last NCAA tourney win by a league team: 2001, then-member Georgia State as a No. 11 seed in first round
2012 conference tournament: Feb. 29-March 3, Macon, Ga.

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Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.

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