Previously we covered seven of the 14 ASUN men’s basketball teams entering the 2022-23 campaign. Today, we are going to look at the remaining seven and what they might mean for the Flames’ chances at another championship run. Let’s keep pressing ahead with our ASUN conference review.
Jacksonville State Gamecocks
Jacksonville State boasted an experienced roster last season, and they were able to control games through pacing and maturity last season. They played composed and confident. They have undergone roster changes this season, but head coach Ray Harper stated in the ESPN+ ASUN preseason special that he interested in “reloading, not rebuilding.” Harper has a win-now mindset, so I expect the Gamecocks to come out with intensity and confidence that they are still a contender. JSU poses a coaching conflict for the Flames. Ritchie McKay and Harper are opposites in personality and approach, so this game often carries more meaning to it than most. Look for JSU to be a competitive and feisty opponent for the Flames, and a dogfight to win.
Central Arkansas Bears
The Bears sport one of the most unique courts in all of college hoops. CKU is a middle-of-the-road contender in the ASUN. They are still fairly young, but I expect them to be competitive against every team in the ASUN this year. They sport four starters averaging double-digit point contributions per game and have a balanced approach. Liberty will need to be sharp in their contest(s) with the Bears and take them seriously. This will give Liberty the edge.
Eastern Kentucky Colonels
In the ESPN+ ASUN preseason special, head coach A.W. Hamilton noted the pride the Colonels take in leading the country in three-point shot attempts. His approach makes sense, as the game is primarily played from the three-point line and close around the basket. Still, this approach likely lends itself to a subpar record at the mid-major level. Look for EKU to finish around the same spot in the standings next season. The Flames will utilize the their defensive IQ to force them off the three-point line and into bad three-point attempts. If EKU gets hot, it will be another close game like last season. Otherwise, the Flames will easily win.
Bellarmine had a stellar post season last year. CJ Fleming showed up to play when it counted most, and head coach Scott Davenport led his players well in the heat of the moment. Davenport is an excellent culture-setter, and as all collegiate sports fans know, culture wins. Fleming’s graduation will certainly hurt the Knights but expect Bellarmine to bring their A-game and to compete each night. The Flames will be eager after last year’s setback to Bellarmine in the ASUN semifinals, so look for a motivated contest.
North Alabama Lions
North Alabama is a recent addition to the D1 level, and it showed in their performance last season. They are still finding their feet at the next level. This season will continue to serve as an adjustment period for them. The Flames did not struggle with them last season, and given the strength of the Flames this season, I predict they will roll through their competition(s) this season.
While Kennesaw State is one of my dark horses in the ASUN this year, I also think Lipscomb is a dark horse in the league. The Bisons finished 6-10 in conference play last season, but I think they are poised for a deep postseason run. Will Pruitt is a stand-out young guard who is one of the best mid-major point guards in the NCAA. Ahsan Asadullah is a capable big man who is known throughout the ASUN. Lastly, Trae Benham is a competitive scoring guard who helped Pruitt run the team on both sides of the ball. Look for Lipscomb and Liberty to go toe-to-toe and possibly compete for the championship if the season takes a dramatic end.
The Flames are poised to handle the ASUN. Last season was nothing but a disappointment for the team. They struggled with balanced scoring, fell to inconsistencies in the last third of the season, and faced an earlier exit from the tournament than expected. The presence of Darius McGhee will be record-setting, and the teams’ defense will be refined with more experience from Joseph Venzant, Shiloh Robinson, Isiah Warfield, and Kyle Rode. At the risk of sounding like a homer, I legitimately expect the Flames to surprise the league with their ability to succeed. This season will likely serve as the perfect catapult to respect in the Conference USA and allow the Flames to leave the ASUN on a high note.
As any college basketball fan knows, expectations and reality are two very different things each season. Much of the fun of fandom is seeing if our expectations are in fact realistic. The drama, competitive nature, and upset ability are just a few of the elements that make mid-major basketball the most enjoyable level of collegiate basketball. I’m looking forward to the fan interactions on social media and excitement that awaits us when conference play starts.