TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 09, 2004
Nov. 9, 2004
What a difference a year makes...again. Last year, JU entered the season as the most inexperienced team in all of NCAA Division I with no returning starters and just three reserves with limited playing experience.
A year later, the Dolphins return three starters from a team which won a surprising 13 games, including JU's top two scorers - Preseason All-Alantic Sun forward Haminn Quaintance and senior shooting guard David Lee. Quaintance was named Atlantic Sun Conference Freshman of the Year after averaging 14.3 points, 8.8 rebounds and 3.0 blocks per game as a true freshman.
Lee, meanwhile, averaged 14.0 points per game and was one of just two Dolphins to start all 28 games. Junior point guard Aubrey Conerly also returns after starting the final 24 games of his sophomore season. The only key loss for JU in addition to senior forward Nolan McBride, is 7-foot-center Jure Lozancic, who decided to forego his senior season to play professionally in Spain. However, the growth and maturity of sophomore center Ljubisa Vrcelj, who added 20 pounds of muscle in the offseason, should help offset the loss of Lozancic.
More importantly, the Dolphins had their best recruiting class in Durham's seven years at Jacksonville, including four impact players from the junior college ranks with a combined win-loss record of 115-21 last season. JU, which also added junior transfer Bryan Hipsher from the University of Akron, has definitely added some scoring punch to one of the league's top defensive teams.
"I'm excited about this team," said Durham, who ranks ninth among active Division I coaches with 617 career victories. "We have much better depth than last season and players who complement each other, both offensively and defensively. This team likes and respects each other, which makes it a lot of fun to be around."
What to Expect
"We are optimistic about our chances to win the league," said Durham, who is one of just 11 coaches to lead two different teams to the Final Four. "The A-Sun is as balanced from top to bottom as it has been since we joined the league."
Last year, the Dolphins' lack of depth affected them on the defensive end of the floor, but JU still limited opponents to .322 shooting from outside the arc, which ranked third in the A-Sun, and led the conference with 169 blocks (6.04/game). "We have enough depth and athleticism this season to extend the defense and pressure out on the floor," said Durham.
The Dolphins will not be without their challenges. JU's big question mark will be rebounding because it is not a very big team in the post with the loss of Lozancic. The Dolphins sport just one true center in Vrcelj, but that does not mean this team won't be effective on the boards.
"We might not be a very big team, but I think we can be an effective team," said Durham who became the Dolphins' all-time winningest Division I coach last season. "We'll have to work that much harder at rebounding to be successful. However, if we are up to the challenge, this could be an exciting year."
Offensively, the Dolphins are as solid around the perimeter as they have been in the last 10 years. JU sports six players who can score consistently from the outside. "Our ability to score from the perimeter will allow us to spread the floor and make room for our slashers," said Durham. In the post, Vrcelj has improved greatly since his freshman season which should help open up driving lanes, as well as the outside shot.
Look for a good mix in the JU offense, which worked primarily from the high post sets last year. The Dolphins will continue to run a mix of high post variations, including some back door cuts, but JU will be more diverse on the offensive end of the floor.
"The versatility of our players allows us to mix and match in order to create some different lineups and match-ups," said Durham. "We have guards who can play as many as three different positions."
Junior Jesse Kimbrough will battle Conerly for time at the point, but he also has the skills to play shooting guard. The former Texas A&M wide receiver is a physical guard who can attack the boards and should provide a scoring punch. He averaged 16.2 points, 5.0 rebounds and 6.9 assists per game last year at McClennan (Texas) Community College, where he helped lead the Highlanders to 48 wins in two seasons.
"David has improved in all areas of his game," said Durham. "He can take the ball to the basket and is one of the best shooters in the Atlantic Sun. David has really been a leader with his work ethic and approach to the game during the preseason."
Surry should give the Dolphins a scoring punch off the bench after averaging 14.9 points per game last season at Highland (Ill.) Community College. The sharp-shooting lefty is an excellent jump shooter with the speed and quickness to get to the goal. He hit 102 three-pointers as a sophomore and shot 79 percent from the line as the Cougars went 32-3, including a 29-game winning streak.
Although JU does not return a wing from last year's squad, the Dolphins have a chance to be solid with the addition of junior transfers Antonio Cool and Bryan Hipsher. Cool is an excellent athlete who runs the floor well and can shoot the ball from the perimeter. His ability to get the basket will also be a key in JU's high post sets. Cool averaged 11.2 points and 5.1 rebounds last season at the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith, which had six players sign national letters of intent.
"Antonio has a chance to be a standout player in our conference," said Durham. "He has all the physical tools and is a fierce competitor."
Hipsher will add immediate Division I experience after playing in 50 games at Akron, where his father was head coach. He is a versatile player with a solid understanding of the game and great court awareness. The former Ohio high school standout will see time at both wing and in the high post.
The Dolphins are not deep in the post, but should be as athletic as anyone in the conference. Sophomore Haminn Quaintance anchors a corp which includes junior transfers Joey Robinson and Mario Brown. Quaintance exceeded all expectations as a freshman en route to Second-Team Atlantic Sun All-Conference honors, as well A-Sun Freshman-of-the-Year accolades. His ability to pass the ball and his relentless pursuit around the goal made him one of the top all-around players in the conference.
"Q plays hard on every single possession," said Durham. "His ability to be so active and his unselfishness make all the players around him better." Quaintance became the first player in JU history to lead the team in scoring (14.3 ppg), rebounding (8.8 rpg), blocks (84), steals (49) and field goal percentage (53.2%), while also ranking second on the squad with 75 assists. He was the only freshman in the A-Sun ranked in the top 10 in scoring (9th) and rebounding (2nd), while leading the league and ranking ninth nationally with 3.0 blocks per game.
Robinson could surprise some people after playing for one of the top junior colleges in the country. He played his sophomore season behind Oklahoma signee Taj Gray at Redlands (Okla.) Community College, where he helped lead the Cougars to a 35-2 record and the NJCAA national championship game. Robinson is strong and quick, and the Dolphins will look for him to score around the basket. He is also athletic enough to play both power forward and center, and Durham thinks he will improve exponentially as he gains more game experience.
Brown should contribute immediately, as well, especially on the boards and the defensive end of the floor. The Memphis native is a catch-all player who runs the floor well and can defend several positions.
The biggest question mark for JU is at center. Ljubisa Vrcelj is the Dolphins' only true center, and will be counted on to rebound and score in the paint. After playing in 27 games as a back-up to Lozancic as a true freshman, the 6-foot-11, 240-pound sophomore surprised the coaching staff with his strength and conditioning improvement by adding 20 pounds of muscle in the offseason. Vrcelj has shown more confidence at the offensive end of the floor and his increased strength will help him defend in the low post.
The A-Sun is as balanced as ever, sending three teams to the postseason a year ago. The Dolphins' 20-game Atlantic Sun Conference slate begins in early December with home games against preseason favorite Georgia State and Mercer. JU opens the New Year by hosting rivals Stetson and Troy. The Hatters are many people's sleeper to win the league, while the Trojans have captured at least a share of the A-Sun regular-season title in four of the last five years. The road gets much tougher from there for the Dolphins with eight of their final 12 contests on the road, including three straight to end the season (Troy, Georgia State, Mercer). The A-Sun Championship returns to the Curb Event Center in Nashville (Belmont) March 3-5.
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