With Liberty’s move to the ASUN, the highest profile sport it affects is the men’s basketball program. Coming off a Big South Tournament buzzer-beater loss in the championship game and two straight 20 win seasons, Coach McKay’s team is one that is ready to compete for a conference championship. The road to that championship is now much different than it would have been had the Flames remained in the Big South.
The most well known men’s basketball team in the league is Florida Gulf Coast or Dunk City as they became known for during their sweet 16 run in 2013. Since that run, the Eagles have advanced to the postseason each of the past 6 seasons including 3 NCAA Tournament appearances and 2 trips to the NIT. They own a 3-3 all-time record in the Big Dance. The Eagles are on their 3rd head coach during that time as Andy Enfield left to become head coach at USC and Joe Dooley just accepted the East Carolina job. Long-time assistant Michael Fly was named head coach earlier this year.
2018-19 will be a bit of a rebuild for Coach Fly and the Eagles as they have to replace their top 3 and 5 of their top 6 scorers. After transferring from Marquette, Haanif Cheatham becomes eligible in December. He averaged 11.8 points per game as a freshman and started 63 of 70 games he appeared in at Marquette. Former 4-star recruit and UNLV transfer Troy Baxter, Jr. will also be eligible in 2018-19. He averaged 4.3 points and 2.3 rebounds as a freshman for the Runnin’ Rebels.
The defending champ, Lipscomb, brings just about everything back from a squad that finished 23-10 and lost to UNC in the first round of the 2018 NCAA Tournament. They will enter the season as the conference favorite behind 5th year head coach Casey Alexander. Alexander has built the Bisons into a winning program that has won 20 or more games each of the past two seasons. Led by 2018 first-team all-ASUN selections Garrison Mathews and Rob Marberry, Lipscomb will attempt to repeat as conference tournament champs.
Both FGCU (127) and Lipscomb (167) finished ahead of Liberty (184) in the national KenPom rankings; however, the rest of the ASUN finished 254th or worst and all had losing records. Jacksonville finished 3rd in the league standings last year, but lose 2nd-team all-conference selection and Defensive Player of the Year Devin Harris. The Dolphins do return their top two leading scorers in Jace Hogan and 2018 ASUN Freshman of the Year JD Notae.
NJIT and North Florida finished tied for 4th in 2018. NJIT will have to replace their leading scorer as first-team all-ASUN selection Anthony Tarke has decided to transfer. The Highlanders do return their other 4 starters. The North Florida Ospreys return all 5 starters from a team that finished 14-19 overall and 7-7 in ASUN play. UNF is the last team to win the ASUN championship not named FGCU or Lipscomb, doing so in 2015.
Kennesaw State and Stetson finished in 6th and 7th place in the conference standings, respectively, while Division II program North Alabama joins the conference in 2018-19.
“I’m very familiar with some of the coaches and the programs that are in the league,” Liberty head coach Ritchie McKay said. “I think Florida Gulf Coast would be the envy of any mid-major program. They’ve been terrific from Andy Enfield to Joe Dooley. They’ve set precedents now that I think they’ve got an established program that will continue. Lipscomb is on the rise. The thing that I notice most about it, was the ASUN, in the last 5-6 years, they’ve gotten a little bit of a higher seed in the NCAA Tournament, and I think that speaks volumes to your chances to being able to have an opportunity to do something grand like Dunk City did years ago.”
Since 2011, only 2 of 8 ASUN tournament champs have received a 16 seed with an average seed of 14.6 during that time. Compared to the Big South, where 6 of 8 tournament champions received a 16 seed with an average seed of 15.5.
“We’re very appreciative of our time in the Big South,” McKay continued. “A lot of friendships and relationships were established there, but we’re also looking forward to some new opportunities and some new challenges.”