TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 06, 2007
Gaining Momentum

Nov. 6, 2007

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - It's been a long time since the Jacksonville men's basketball program had momentum entering a season.

There aren't many times that a 15-14 season would be hailed as a success, but after winning just one game in 2005-06, the second season under the watchful eye of Cliff Warren gave a glimpse of the future of JU basketball.

While the improvement of the overall record is amazing, the Dolphins rocketed up the Atlantic Sun Conference standings - taking home third place and earning JU's highest seeding in the A-Sun Tournament since joining the league in 1998.

The improvement didn't go unnoticed. Jesse Kimbrough earned first team all-conference honors while Ben Smith and Lehmon Colbert were each named to the A-Sun's all-freshmen team.

After such a successful season, Warren and his staff were recognized for their hard work and dedication. Warren was named A-Sun "Coach of the Year" by Collegeinsider.com and was a finalist for the Jim Phelan National "Coach of the Year" and Hugh Durham Mid-Major "Coach of the Year" awards.

"Last year was a momentum building year for us," Warren said. "There's a natural progression to improve. We've recruited good student-athletes, which is our goal every year."

The next step for the program is to continue building off of the momentum of last season. The Dolphins' third place finish last season has hopes high that a title may not be far away.

"Our goal every year is to win the conference title," Warren said. "All of our players understand what we want, our goals and how to do things correctly. Last year we showed how we want to play, up-tempo on offense with hard-nosed defense. We also received the type of accolades and recognition for our program that we want to gain.

"Last year set the tone of being competitive and winning games, but we're not just satisfied with that. Our ultimate goal is to win the A-Sun championship."

For Warren and the Dolphins, their ability to get into the title hunt will depend on the continued development of the players currently in the program and the newcomers meshing with the returnees.

Warren's third team has just one senior and has to replace Kimbrough - who was the leader of the team. Along with his leadership, Kimbrough led the team in scoring and assists.

"Losing Jesse hurts," Warren said. "His leadership and toughness will be hard to replace."

The lone senior on this year's squad is walk-on Evan Jefferson, who has become a key role player for the Dolphins over the past two seasons. A potent 3-point threat, Jefferson will be called upon to continue developing his all-around offensive game.

While only having one senior may seem to be a deterrent, Warren has three returning players who have earned conference all-freshmen team honors under his watch. The Dolphins lineup will feature five new players this year, four of which are freshmen that will contribute to the program immediately.

Recruiting is the lifeblood of any program, but the JU coaching staff has received a big boost over the past two years. Playing home games Downtown at the Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena gives JU the best home court in the A-Sun as well as increasing exposure in the city.

The Dolphins racked up a 12-1 record at home in their first season back Downtown - winning the first 11 games at the Arena and developing a notion of being one of the most difficult places to play in the league.

"Moving Downtown was a positive experience for everyone involved in the program because of the great support we received from the community," Warren said. "Having one of the nicest facilities in the country, as well as some of the best fans in the conference, gave us a unique home-court advantage."

POINT GUARD

Last season, Ben Smith served as an apprentice to sixth-year senior Jesse Kimbrough - learning the ropes of the college game early in the year. As the season progressed, Smith continued to improve - eventually becoming a threat both as a scorer and in setting up his teammates.

Smith's improvement didn't go unnoticed. He earned Atlantic Sun Conference all-freshman team honors after finishing the season with an average of 9.9 points per game and finishing in the top five in the conference in assists per game.

As he enters his sophomore season, Smith will be called upon to shoulder more of the load after Kimbrough's graduation.

"I am very happy that Ben was named to the all-freshman team last year as it was loaded with talented guys," Warren said. "It was great that he was recognized not for points or assists, but how he led the team."

Backing up Smith will be freshman Travis Cohn and junior Mike DiBendetto. Cohn comes to JU after a stellar prep career at Austin High School (Decatur, Ala.), leading his team to the state Final Four twice.

"Travis is a different type of point guard from Ben," Warren said. "He is an athletic, rangy point guard that is very cerebral and knows how to create scoring opportunities for his teammates within the flow of the game."

DiBendetto, a walk-on junior who has improved over the past two years, has a great grasp of the game that turns him into an extra coach - both on the bench and when he's on the floor. So far, he's perfect from the floor shooting-wise in his career.

"Mike has done everything he has been asked to do in practice, games and off the court," Warren said. "He knows our system so well that he's like an extra coach in uniform. He quickly steps in to tell younger players what to do and what not to do, which is encouraging from a coach's perspective."

SHOOTING GUARD

After struggling for depth the past two seasons at shooting guard, the Dolphins will have some options at their disposal this year.

Senior Evan Jefferson and sophomore Derek Duggins return from last year's squad while junior college transfers Andre McMillan and Bryan Gilbert will be a factor at the position as well.

Each one brings something different to the table, with Gilbert and Duggins having the versatility to play at the small forward as well.

Jefferson has the most experience of the group and performed well off the bench last season, averaging 6.3 points per game by hitting 35.8 percent of his 3-point attempts.

"Evan has been very steady for us the past two years," Warren said. "He improved tremendously last year. He came in as a 3-point specialist and has become a better defender."

Duggins learned on the job last year as a freshman, playing in 25 games and averaging 3.7 points per game. He showed flashes of his talent throughout the season, headlined by his season-high 13 points at East Tennessee State.

"Derek made some great strides this spring in workouts and in the weight room," Warren said. "We look forward to his contribution to the team this year."

The two newcomers bring depth, experience and maturity to the program. McMillan spent three years in the Navy before his college career began at Tallahassee Community College and then transferred to JU. Gilbert wasn't a highly-touted prospect coming out of Providence High School in Jacksonville, but became a solid player in his two years at the junior college level.

"Andre is a veteran basketball player," Warren said. "He's very mature and focused on and off the court. He is also a very good 3-point shooter.

"Bryan is a 3-point threat with a high basketball IQ, which is the type of player I've always been encouraged to coach. He is able to affect the team positively without having a play called for him."

SMALL FORWARD

The Dolphins' small forward position is loaded with talent and versatility, with each player bringing a different characteristic to the program.

Freshmen Ayron Hardy, Aric Brooks and Walter Fortson will push for time in the lineup with Duggins and Gilbert seeing minutes as well.

The one characteristic they all have in common is athleticism, which is what Warren is looking for out of this position.

"We have a lot of options at this position this year, which is something we haven't had since I've been here," Warren said. "We can go big, we can go small, we can do a lot of different things with the versatility of the guys we have now."

Hardy joins the program after a stellar career at Huffman High School in Alabama, leading the Vikings to the Final Four his junior season. Ranked seventh in the state by The Birmingham News among Alabama's 12 "Super Seniors." Hardy averaged 15 points, eight rebounds, three steals and three assists his senior season.

"Ayron has a great nose for the basketball," Warren said. "He is extremely athletic, versatile and very defensive minded - which allows him to guard a number of positions."

Brooks, a native of Baltimore, Md., was impressive during his senior season at St. Frances Academy - averaging 15 points and eight rebounds per game. A first team all-Baltimore City selection, Brooks was selected second team all-metro by The Baltimore Sun.

"Aric is another versatile player that can play a number of positions on offense and guard on defense," Warren said. "He is a very good finisher in transition and brings a level of toughness to our program."

Rounding out the group of newcomers is Walter Fortson. A late addition to the Dolphins, Fortson prepped at Redan High School in Decatur, Ga. A stellar rebounder, Fortson's athletic ability enabled him to average 6.8 boards per game.

"Walter is long and athletic," Warren said. "He has the ability to make shots and rebound which are two things we were looking to add."

POWER FORWARD

For Lehmon Colbert, his freshman year was impressive by any standard. He started 28 games, finished second on the team in scoring (11.7 ppg), rebounding (5.2 rpg) and 3-point percentage (36.1).

All of that added together to earn him a spot on the A-Sun all-freshman team.

Entering his sophomore campaign, Colbert will be called upon to continue to develop his game and become a leader on the squad.

"I am very happy he was rewarded for his efforts with a spot on the all-freshman team," Warren said. "He worked hard in the spring on his shooting and ball handling. He should be ready to raise his game from his freshman year as we look for him to carry more of the scoring load."

Pushing Colbert in the post will be freshman Paul Kohlheim. A native of Tupelo, Miss., he comes to JU after averaging 22 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks per game at Tupelo High School en route to honorable mention all-state honors.

Kohlheim was a member of Mississippi's prestigious "Dandy Dozen" and was ranked No. 228 in the country by the recruiting gurus at Hoopscoop.com.

"Paul is extremely strong and athletic," Warren said. "He is a power player who has a knack for rebounding."

CENTER

Injuries hampered Marcus Allen's sophomore campaign, limiting his minutes and hampering his productivity. Allen was able to lead the team in rebounds, averaging seven per game, his points per game dropped to 9.7.

After an offseason training regimen that has him back at 100 percent, Allen is ready to produce for the Dolphins as a junior.

"Last year, Marcus was injury riddled, but he is much healthier, stronger and in better shape," Warren said. "He really improved this spring and has worked hard in the summer on his conditioning."

Backing up Allen in the post will be freshman Szymon Lukasiak.

Lukasiak joins the program from Monteverde Academy in Orlando, Fla. A native of Poland, Lukasiak's 6-foot-9 frame will be a force in the paint on offense and defense.

"Szymon is a space eater - he has great size and strength," Warren said. "He is a very good rebounder and a physical presence on the court."

SCHEDULE

The schedule in front of the Dolphins is grueling and difficult. There are road trips to meet three potential top 25 teams, including two teams from last year's Final Four as JU heads to Michigan State, Florida and Georgetown.

There is also the renewal of rivalries with old conference foes - South Alabama from JU's tenure in the Sun Belt, as well as Troy and Georgia State from the Atlantic Sun.

The Dolphins also have a home-and-home with Savannah State, a road trip to South Carolina State and a trip to an up-and-coming team at UAB.

That leads into a 16-game A-Sun slate which features regional scheduling this season as the league expands to 12 teams. The Dolphins will face Stetson, Mercer, Kennesaw State, UNF and Florida Gulf Coast twice, travel to Belmont, Lipscomb and USC Upstate while hosting Campbell, Gardner-Webb and ETSU.

"We are trying to play tough competition," Warren said. "We face two Final Four teams, a potential Final Four team in Michigan State and a definite NCAA team in UAB. We're also playing several schools comparable to us in size and strength, which will give our team a chance to develop early before hitting conference play in January."

CONFERENCE

While there are 12 teams in the league this season, four are ineligible for the conference tournament, meaning the other eight teams are automatically in the A-Sun Tournament - which stays in Tennessee for the next two years, moving from ETSU to Lipscomb.

The race for the league title figures to be one of the tightest in league history as every team seems to have the firepower to make a run at the title.

"The league is going to be better this year and it's going to make for a competitive race," Warren said. "Every team has increased their talent level in the three years that I've been in the league, which will create a more balanced league this year."

OUTLOOK

Year two of the Cliff Warren Era was widely hailed as a success as the Dolphins finished with a winning record. After surprising a lot of teams last year, the Dolphins won't sneak up on anybody this season.

After building the foundation for the program, the hard part comes as the Dolphins look to take the next step - contending for a title.

Last year, the youngsters had a taste of success and know that they must work even harder to make that jump into the upper echelon of the league.

"Our goal, like everyone else, is to win the conference title," Warren said. "The guys know what is expected of them and what it takes to win. If we can continue to improve each day, like we did last year, then we are going to have an opportunity to reach our goal."