Sun, sand and ... competitive basketball?
The palm-dotted main campus of Florida Atlantic University, resplendent in sun-dappled stucco, sits just one mile from beautiful white sand beaches. With Boca Raton's soft skies and constant tropical climate, life at FAU feels like summer session all year long.
But Matt Doherty hasn't had much time to enjoy the weather or the scenery. He's got a basketball program to build.
Doherty was introduced as the Owls' new coach April 18, just over two years after he resigned under pressure after three seasons at North Carolina's Dean Dome. Because of the relatively late hire, the last three months have been a blur of interviewing assistants and recruiting players -- Doherty has had little time to watch his players work out or watch tape, much less stand still.
"There are still a lot of unknowns," Doherty says. "I haven't seen any of the other teams [in the league] play, so that creates a little anxiety on my part. What I've been told is that our team is relatively athletic. Hopefully we'll be able to utilize that athleticism, especially on the defensive end. Hopefully, we'll build a brand of basketball that excites the people of Palm Beach County."
His very presence has already inflamed hearts at a school that, like Doherty, was born in space-age 1962. At the time of FAU's inception, one of the names under consideration was "A-OK University," in reference to an astronaut catchphrase often used at nearby Cape Canaveral.
But Florida Atlantic's 12-year Division I legacy has offered as much satisfaction as a bland brick of "astronaut ice cream." Aside from a surprise Atlantic Sun tournament title (and NCAA Tournament appearance) in 2002, the basketball Owls have compiled a 102-234 record and only two winning seasons. Instead, FAU's sporting pride has been its eight-time league champion women's softball team, a program that the hoop squad has struggled to outdraw in recent years.
Last season's squad, which spelled the end of Sidney Green's six-year tenure, was a seeming tribute to the all-offense, no-defense Denver Nuggets of the 1980s. FAU was second in the league in points scored (76.8) and worst in points allowed (78.7) on the way to a lackluster 10-17 overall record.
Still, the team had a star in outgoing senior Mike Bell, whose conference-best 19.1 points and 9.3 boards per game in 2004-05 earned him Atlantic Sun player of the year honors. Doherty recognizes that's a lot of production to replace.
"I don't know if any one person can do that," he says. "We'll be looking for a good team effort. A lot of the leadership will be expected to come from [6-foot-7 junior forward] Rodney Webb and [6-3 junior guard] Quinton Young, two leaders coming back from last year."
FAU's new coach recently put the finishing touches on his first and last A-Sun roster, since Florida Atlantic is joining the Sun Belt Conference next season. Doherty has signed five players since his hiring.
Among the newcomers are two local Florida products, two from Philadelphia and one from Michigan -- a testament to the fat recruiting Rolodex that Doherty has built up during his years at Davidson, Kansas, Notre Dame and UNC.
"We have a good recruiting base here in Florida," he says. "But we can draw upon other areas too -- New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit we're a direct flight away from every major city in the country."
There's no denying Doherty's powers of persuasion on the recruiting trail. After all, the core of the national champion Tar Heels was comprised of players like Sean May and Raymond Felton. Doherty attended their high school games and met their moms while wooing them to UNC.
"As a head coach in college, you're also a [general manager], and you're in charge of putting together a winning team," he said. "I felt like even though I didn't get to cut down the nets in St. Louis, I helped put that group together. To me, that's great satisfaction."
So as Doherty starts over in Boca, light years from the media glare and expectations of the ACC, he's quite happy with the way things turned out. In fact, you might even say that he's A-OK with it all.
"We've got the pieces in place," he says. "I feel like I've got a terrific staff here, and we're being well-received by prospects. I'm very excited."
Good sign: If finding ways to lose to each of your league opponents twice in one season is difficult business, it's even harder to sugarcoat a winless regular season.
While Campbell finished 0-20 in the A-Sun (2-25 overall), it placed in the top half of the league -- fifth out of 11 squads -- in team rebounding (36.4 rpg). The Fightin' Camels even outrebounded their opponents in 14 of their 27 games.
Poor board work is often what separates atrocious teams from the simply awful ones, but Campbell was the only team in the RPI's bottom 10 with a positive average rebounding margin (+1.9).
This isn't totally surprising -- the little school in Buies Creek, N.C., is the birthplace of a tool that has helped countless big men sharpen their glass-cleaning skills. The McCall's Rebounder, invented three decades ago by former Campbell coach Fred McCall (known to some as the "Father of Rebounding"), is a raised wire contraption that holds several basketballs and dispenses them one at a time.
It's when the Camels gained possession of the ball that the real problems began -- they finished dead last among Atlantic Sun teams in points per game (62.3) and field-goal percentage (40.7), and they led the league in turnovers per game (18.8).
No word yet on whether coach Robbie Laing has discovered machines to help develop those areas, too.
Safe bet: Last season, each of the teams that made the Atlantic Sun tournament was at least .500 in conference play. Don't be surprised if this extreme rarity repeats itself in 2005-06.
Because only the top eight of the Atlantic Sun's 11 teams are invited to participate in their postseason event, even ninth-place Florida Atlantic had to stay home this past March -- despite a 10-10 league record. Parity was the rule last season, but Campbell's 0-fer was the leading cause of leaguewide grade inflation.
This year, we say goodbye to three schools that have collected four of the A-Sun's last five automatic NCAA bids. Central Florida, survivor of the last two conference tournaments, graduated to Conference USA. Troy, the 2003 champ, took its 3-point air show to the Sun Belt. And Georgia State, winner of 29 games on its way to the 2001 A-Sun title (and the league's most recent NCAA Tournament win), joined the Colonial.
The vacancies were filled by the Southern Conference's East Tennessee State and a pair of schools up from Division II's Peach Belt Conference. The Ospreys of the Jacksonville-based University of North Florida are in, as well as the Kennesaw State Fighting Owls from the Atlanta metro area. Both will have to wait until 2009-10 to become full-fledged Division I members -- in the meantime, neither will be eligible for the conference postseason or the NCAA Tournament.
Kennesaw State won the 2004 Division II national championship and has a sterling 84-20 mark over the past three seasons. Coach Tony Ingle promises the same exciting, up-tempo brand of play that dominated the lower circuits.
"We're going to be entertaining, we're going to work hard and we certainly hope we can be competitive," Ingle says. "We know it's going to be tough, but we need to build a strong foundation so we can support the castle of our dreams."
Because of roster turnover, work on that foundation will begin immediately. No starters remain from the 2004 team that won 35 games and cruised to the national title, and KSU's inaugural Division I roster will feature as many as seven freshmen.
"We're going to be younger than a lot of junior college teams, and we're going Division I, too," Ingle noted. "Like I tell everyone, it's going to be tougher than pulling a hair out of your mother-in-law's homemade biscuit."
Questionable cuisine notwithstanding, Kennesaw State and North Florida have a long, tough road in front of them. And if Campbell can't discover a way to score, next March's A-Sun tourney (hosted by ETSU) might just become the league's second consecutive winners' bracket.
Red flag: At this time last year, there was a lot of hope at East Tennessee State.
There had been consecutive Southern Conference tourney titles in 2002 and 2003, each followed by an NCAA Tournament near-upset (three-point losses in the first round to Wake Forest and Cincinnati).
National magazines began preparing feature stories and photo layouts about an explosive 5-9 junior point guard named Tim Smith, hailing him as a poster child for mid-major success. Despite the loss of two-thirds of their frontcourt to graduation, the Buccaneers headed into their SoCon swan song as solid three-peat contenders.
But 2004-05 turned out to be quite the ugly duck. Tim Nuckles, the third big man from the championship squads, shattered his foot in December and was lost for the rest of his junior season. Dillion Sneed, a strong-shouldered 6-7 juco transfer, stepped in admirably (9.5 rpg) but had little help on the inside, especially against teams with frontcourt depth.
As league play wore on, ETSU's season spiraled out of control. The Buccaneers endured a seven-game losing streak that lasted from mid-January to mid-February, served up a league-worst 78.7 points per game and finished 5-13 in the conference (10-19 overall).
ETSU did score a lot -- 76.8 points per game. But at times, the offense was no more complex than Smith bringing the ball up the court and hoisting a shot. He took 32 percent of the team's attempts from the floor last year, converting 42 percent of them (245-for-579) and averaging 22.2 points per game. His assist-to-turnover ratio was even (well short of the 2-1 ratio expected from good college point guards), and many ETSU fans began to openly question his floor judgement.
Smith put his name in the NBA draft pool but removed himself from consideration in June, opting to return to school. Watch the early-season tea leaves -- if the losses begin to mount, Smith might feel tempted to play for the scouts instead of his coach and team. If he does, the Bucs will likely encounter choppy seas in their inaugural A-Sun campaign.
Worth watching: There are fun teams to watch, and then there's Jacksonville. Last year's Dolphin squad was an exciting, high-flying, premium-octane ABA throwback.
The Fins weren't lacking for engaging characters, either. Haminn Quaintance (13.6 ppg, 8.9 rpg), a long-limbed leaper, was instantly recognizable by his wild hair and the simple "Q" on the back of his jersey. The exquisitely chilled Antonio Cool calmly knocked them down from the arc (11.3 ppg, 40.7 percent on 3-point FGs). Ljubisa Vrcelj, the 6-11 Yugoslavian, was tougher to move out of the paint than to pronounce, and former footballing Texan Jesse Kimbrough, aka "The Cowboy," ran the show from the point.
But for all the showtime and "soul in the hole," the one thing that's been missing lately at JU are championships. The school that gave us Artis Gilmore and former NBA no-look, slam-dunk champion Dee Brown hasn't made the NCAAs since 1986 and is far removed from its annual appearances in the early '70s (including a 1970 trip to the national title game).
The 2004-05 Dolphins went 16-13 overall and just plain ran out of funk in a 77-76 loss in the semifinals to top seed Gardner-Webb.
Enter the calm and dignified Cliff Warren, who for five years sat at Paul Hewitt's right hand at Georgia Tech helping to oversee three NCAA Tournament runs. Warren instantly becomes the best recruiter in mid-majordom (according to Rivals.com), and he made an immediate splash by signing 6-5 wing Justin Jack, brother of former GT star Jarrett Jack.
Four starters -- including double-figure scorers Cool, Kimbrough and "Q" -- are returning, so the Dolphins' 2005-06 season might be the stuff of Hollywood legend. Can Warren bring together this ragtag bunch of players and teach them to win? Can they overcome the challenge posed by presumptive favorite Gardner-Webb (and league player of the year candidate Brian Bender) and make it back to the national stage?
If they can, JU basketball is a definite candidate to be next spring's feel-good hit. They can even call it The Fish That Saved Jacksonville.
After being denied last year in the conference tournament final after sharing the regular-season crown, is this Gardner-Webb's season? Our resident Bracketologist, Joe Lunardi, thinks so. He has GWU as the conference's representative in his early look at the 2006 NCAA Tournament.
|Team||League record||Overall record|
Note: Central Florida, Georgia State and Troy have left the conference. New addition East Tennessee State finished 10-19 (5-13 SoCon) last season. Kennesaw State and North Florida are entering Division I.
|Expected leading returning scorers|
|Player (Team)||2004-05 PPG|
|Anthony Register (Stetson)||16.1|
|Will Emerson (Mercer)||15.6|
|Brian Bender (Gardner-Webb)||15.4|
|Jacob Skogen (Mercer)||14.7|
|E.J. Gordon (Stetson)||14.4|
Kyle Whelliston is the founder of midmajority.com and is a contributor to ESPN.com.