Wednesday, July 27, 2005
Updated: August 2, 9:48 AM ET
Sun, sand and ... competitive basketball?
By Kyle Whelliston
Special to ESPN.com
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
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
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
"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
|It's not Chapel Hill, but the weather and shopping are pretty good.|
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
* NCAA Tournament
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.
Kyle Whelliston is the founder of midmajority.com and is a contributor to ESPN.com.