THURSDAY, OCTOBER 27, 2005
The fastest 40 minutes in Jacksonville set to debut in 2005
Oct. 27, 2005
Selected as the 15th head coach in school history, Warren brings years of experience turning programs around and leading them to the NCAA Tournament. As an assistant at Mount St. Mary's, Siena and Georgia Tech, he helped each program advance to the NCAAs, including the national title game with Georgia Tech.
Now Warren takes over a program which has been in the national title game, but is searching for a much-needed boost to return to prominence. The basketball program and the school have received more exposure since Warren's addition and there's a buzz about the town about for upcoming season.
"I was excited about taking this job because President Romesburg and Alan Verlander (JU athletics director) have a vision for the men's basketball program," Warren said. "They want the program to be bigger than it ever was. It starts from the top and trickles down and their enthusiasm and passion is contagious."
Last year, the Dolphins finished 16-13 and won their first game in the Atlantic Sun Conference tournament since joining the league in 1998, after finishing in a tie for fourth at 11-9. It marked the first time in three seasons that JU finished with a winning record.
The team that Warren inherits is not without talent or experience. The Dolphins have five seniors, four of which saw extensive playing time last season, and are projected to push for a spot in the starting lineup this season.
Experience is not all that Warren at his disposal. He also has a lot of youth, with seven freshmen on the roster.
"When I took the job, I was happy because of the veteran players we have returning," Warren said. "I really like their attitude, because these kids want to improve. They want to better themselves and make each other better as well."
Having improvement on the floor is only part of Warren's plan with the program. He also wants to see improvement off the floor as well, with players succeeding in the classroom and getting their degree.
"I also want our young men to work hard in the classroom," Warren said. "The players will enjoy their college experience, on the court, in the classroom and in the community."
While there is a new leader of the program, the goal for the Dolphins is still the same - win the Atlantic Sun Conference tournament and make the NCAA Tournament.
"Of course, we want to get to the NCAA Tournament," Warren said. "But the only way for us to get there is to win the Atlantic Sun championship. So as long as we focus on the first goal, the bigger things will take care of themselves."
The back court for the Dolphins will see two familiar faces in the starting lineup, but their replacements off the bench are all new.
Warren has a great dilemma - he has two players that can play both the point and shooting guard positions.
Jesse Kimbrough, a 6-foot senior, is penciled in as the starter at point guard with Aubrey Conerly, a 5-foot-11 senior, slated to be the starter at the shooting guard spot. Each player complements the other and creates one of the best backcourt tandems in the Atlantic Sun.
Kimbrough is the second leading returning scorer from last year's team, averaging 10.8 points per game. He also led JU in assists last year with 90. His ability to create opportunities and direct the offense give him the early starting nod at the point.
As one of the most dangerous outside shooters in the A-Sun, Conerly returns after averaging 6.5 points last season. While seeing time at both guard positions, Conerly dished out 70 assists while hitting 34.4 percent of his 3-point attempts.
"We have two senior guards that have played a lot of basketball in their careers," Warren said. "They bring a lot of leadership to our team at two important positions. These guys have played together and that's a big advantage for us, especially since both can play either guard position and play with passion and energy."
Depth in the back court is one of Warren's biggest concerns. The only other guard on the roster with game experience is senior Matthew Kampfe, a two-year member of the team after walking on from the football team.
Freshmen David Fine and Joseph Newman are expected to be the first two players off the bench.
Jacksonville's front court also features some experienced players to go along with a bumper crop of talent from Warren's first recruiting class.
The front court will be led by small forward Antonio Cool, the top returning scorer from last year's team. Cool, a 6-4 senior, averaged 11.3 points per game and hit almost 48 percent of his shots from the floor. Another of the top 3-point threats in the conference, Cool led the team in 3-point field goal percentage hitting 40.5 percent from behind the arc.
"Antonio is the most focused player on the team," Warren said. "He sets an example of what I want everyone to be. He's married with a child and he realizes he's got a great opportunity to get an education and provide for his family. He's getting all that he can out of basketball and if he improves, he might be able to earn a living playing basketball."
The starting spot at power forward belongs to Mario Brown entering preseason practice. Brown, a 6-7 senior, was one of the top defensive players in the conference a year ago, racking up 53 blocked shots. Warren has worked with him in the preseason on becoming more of a force on the offensive end, where Brown averaged just 4.4 points, while hitting 60 percent of his shots from the floor.
In the middle will be Ljubisa Vrcelj, a 6-foot-11 junior, who has been a solid defensive force for the Dolphins over the past two years. With his big frame, Vrcelj alters shots with great regularity. The area Warren has worked with Vrcelj the most is on the offensive end, getting him to finish when he gets the ball in the low post.
"I hope we will surprise people this year with the improvement this group has made," Warren said. "What they lack in talent, they make up for in effort, and they give everything they have every time they step onto the floor. Being veterans, they have a lot of confidence in themselves, which is spreading throughout the team."
Allen, a 6-foot-7 freshman from Hollywood, Fla., will see a lot of playing time behind Brown in the power forward spot. Okonma, a native of Los Angeles, Calif., and standing tall with his 6-foot-8 frame, will see time at both power forward and center.
"We have some very talented freshmen who are going to vie for playing time immediately," Warren said. "They are going to push the veterans for their spot in the starting lineup and that competition should make us better."
Backing up Cool will be Bryan Hipsher, a 6-foot-4 junior from Akron, Ohio. Hipsher missed last season with an injury after sitting out the year before after transferring from Akron.
When Warren went about making his schedule, he didn't give himself any nights off. The Dolphins face one of the toughest schedules in recent history, going on the road to face Georgia Tech and Florida, while brining Florida State into Jacksonville to open the season in the Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena, which will also be site of the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament this year.
With those games comes a home-and-home series with Georgia Southern, along with road trips to Coastal Carolina and South Florida.
All of that is added onto 20 games in Atlantic Sun Conference play.
"Our schedule is going to be very competititve and prepare us for the rigors of Atlantic Sun Conference play," Warren said. "We've increased the competitiveness and in the process we are raising the awareness of JU, getting more media exposure by playing nationally ranked teams."
Another bonus to the tough schedule is the Dolphins will be battle-tested when they enter in conference play on Dec. 2 against archrival North Florida at Swisher Gymnasium.
"I want our players to strive to beat the best players in the nation," Warren said. "The only way you can do that is by playing them and we're going to do that this year. I want them to be able to compare themselves to those players and see where they need to improve to get to that level."
The A-Sun will have a 20-game schedule for the second straight season, with each team playing a home-and-home series against the other 10 teams in the league.
"With 20 conference games, it doesn't leave a lot of room for non-conference games," Warren said. "The conference schedule is going to be very challenging because we won't get a lot of preparation time in between games."
The Atlantic Sun Conference is in a period of transition as Troy, UCF and Georgia State leave and Kennesaw State, North Florida and East Tennessee State join the league. The conference stays with 11 teams until Florida Atlantic leaves following this season.
Gardner-Webb returns all five starters from last year's team which claimed the regular-season title before falling in the tournament championship game to UCF. The Bulldogs are picked by both the media and the coaches to repeat as conference champs in 2005-06.
East Tennessee State comes to the A-Sun after a successful run in the Southern Conference and is led by point guard Timmy Smith. The Bucs also have the added advantage of hosting the A-Sun Championship this year. The coaches in the A-Sun believe ETSU will win the tournament title this year.
The Dolphins were picked by the coaches to finish eighth in the league while the media picked JU to finish seventh.
Cliff Warren is no stranger to challenges. He's helped overcome them at Mount St. Mary's, Siena and Georgia Tech. He knows what it takes to rebuild a program from the ground up.
With the talent and players that are returning, Warren has created a level of awareness around the city of Jacksonville that hasn't been seen in a while for Dolphins basketball.
His first team will be a big test. Three starters lead a group of five returnees from last year's team and will form the nucleus of Warren's first ball club. But there is also a load of talented freshmen on the roster that will see a lot of playing time.
"I want our opponents to be tired at the end of games because we're playing with so much energy and passion," Warren said. "I want our guys to be excited about the opportunity that they have to play college basketball. If they can do that, then I think that will lead us to a successful season."
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