Thanks to the eligibility of transfer Boomer Herndon, the Bruins will return to coach Rick Byrd’s preferred one-in, four-out system. At 6-foot-11, Herndon, who left Tennessee after two seasons, can be a dominant player in a league that features few true centers. Byrd will plant Herndon in the middle, let him touch the ball every possession and surround him with 3-point shooters. It’s a recipe any mid-major coach would love. Belmont failed to reach the A-Sun finals the last two seasons when the tournament was held at the Curb Events Center. If the Bruins advance to the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history, they will have to win the crown on ETSU’s home court.
2. Gardner-Webb (18–12, 13–7)
More than 80 percent of the scoring, rebounding and minutes return from an 18–12 squad that tied for the regular-season crown and made it to the tournament final. Chief among those returnees is all-everything standout Tim Jennings, Australian post player Simon Conn and smart slasher/shooter Brian Bender. That trio alone makes the Bulldogs a contender. The addition of backcourt depth (headed by junior college transfer Ed Moore) makes them a threat to be dominant. We’ll know early: North Carolina, Tennessee, Auburn and Ohio State are on the schedule.
3. ETSU (10–19, 4–12 SoCon)
There’s a lot to like about the Buccaneers in their first season in the A-Sun. Tim Smith is a star -- already one of the best in the A-Sun -- and by season’s end he could be his school’s career-scoring leader. Smith and fellow senior Ben Rhoda will be helped by the return of 6-9 Brad Nuckles from a medical redshirt. After back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances in 2003 and ’04, the Bucs smell the postseason again. And they’ll have an advantage this time -- they host the A-Sun Tournament.
4. Lipscomb (16–12, 11–9)
The Bisons won their final four games to qualify for the conference tournament a year ago, and the return of Brian Fisk and James Poindexter, plus two other starters, makes this team one to keep an eye on. Lipscomb is often overshadowed by Nashville rival Belmont. The gap is closing. The Bisons may be the A-Sun’s most dangerous team.
5. Mercer (16–12, 11–9)
Coach Mark Slonaker has his quickest team in nine years in Macon. He also has a trio of solid players opponents will have to guard -- point guard Damitrius Coleman, wing Jacob Skogen and post player Will Emerson. The addition of South Florida transfer Montavious Waters -- he’s eligible after the first four games -- will be a big boost. Mercer will score and put pressure on teams. Whether the Bears can move up from the middle of the pack depends on how much improvement they make defensively.
6. Florida Atlantic (10–17, 10–10)
The Owls had the A-Sun’s top player a year ago (Mike Bell) and didn’t reach the conference tournament. That proves FAU needs more direction and discipline. Former North Carolina head coach Matt Doherty has promised both. If they get it, the Owls can move up quickly in their final season in the A-Sun.
7. Jacksonville (16–13, 11–9)
The Dolphins have talent, so most of new coach Cliff Warren’s challenges will come in teaching his team to battle through a season’s natural adversity. Haminn Quaintance is a top talent but turns his game on and off like a spigot. The combination of Quaintance and Aubrey Conerly is solid, and the addition of guard Justin Jack (brother of former Georgia Tech star Jarrett Jack) will only help.
8. Stetson (10–17, 8–12)
The Hatters were the A-Sun’s biggest disappointment a year ago. They were among the favorites to win the conference but didn’t even reach the conference tournament. The backcourt duo of Anthony Register and E.J. Gordon return for their fourth year together, and 7-2 Chief Kickingstallionsims will be better. Register and Gordon are difficult to defend, but Gordon often takes himself out of games with too many mistakes. If he continues that trend, the Hatters will miss the A-Sun Tournament again.
9. Campbell (2–25, 0–20)
The Fighting Camels were 2–25 last year and lost all 20 A-Sun games. By the end of the season, though, they were dangerous. Sophomore Ruell Pringle and senior Maurice Latham are joined by junior college transfers Ledell Eackles, Michael Baskerville and J’Quincy Jones. The Camels will be improved. But will it be enough?
Not Eligible for A-Sun title
Kennesaw State (24–6, D-II)
Coach Tony Ingle won the 2004 Division II national championship, and the Owls went to the D-II national tournament three years in a row. But Division I is a new game. Winning 59 games the past two seasons means they have experience, but they’re going to need bodies bigger than Georgy Joseph. The Owls will be full-fledged Division I members in 2009-10.
North Florida (14–17, D-II)
The Ospreys are taking the slow, steady approach to Division I membership. With no NCAA possibilities for four years, they’re not over-scheduled and hope at this point to be competitive. Four returning starters, headed by guard Chris Timberlake, and transfer forward Alain Laroche will give them a chance. The Ospreys will be full-fledged Division I members in 2009-10.