The Crimson Tide basketball team will officially open the 2011-2012 season on Friday night at home against the North Florida Ospreys of the Atlantic Sun Conference. Below we'll preview the Ospreys and offer a little insight into their team before previewing the game itself in a separate piece tomorrow.
In two years coaching the relatively new Division I program, UNF coach Matthew Driscoll has breathed life into a program that was literally at the very, very bottom of D-1 college basketball before his arrival. Last season the Ospreys finished in the middle of the pack of the Atlantic Sun (ranked 21st strongest conference out of 33 last year) with a 10-10 league record. UNF managed to make it to the semifinals of the A-Sun tournament in the postseason, but then were crushed by eventual champions Belmont. With all but one starter returning, the Ospreys should have their best season ever this year and should finish in the top half of the A-Sun.
Last year UNF did a nice job getting to the free throw line on offense, ranking 64th in the nation in free throw attempt rate. They were also fairly efficient shooting inside, ranking 105th nationally in 2-point shooting %. Their overall effective shooting % was above average nationally, so they weren't a bad team offensively when they got shots off. The biggest strength of the Osprey defense was creating turnovers, where they ranked 93rd nationally in defensive turnover rate. They also did a very good job defending the perimeter, ranking 53rd in 3-point % defense. In other words, they were a good, but not great shooting team, and their pesky perimeter defense caused a lot of turnovers and made it difficult for opponents to get good looks outside.
By far the most glaring weakness for the Ospreys last year was rebounding. UNF ranked 344th in defensive rebounding rate, meaning only one team in all of college basketball was worse at giving up offensive rebounds. They were a little better on the offensive rebounding end, but still well below average. Another glaring weakness was offensive turnover rate, where the Ospreys ranked 337th, meaning only eight teams in all of college basketball turned the ball over more. Making matters worse, they were also at the very bottom nationally (334th) in allowing blocks on the offensive end. The most glaring weaknesses of the team were a direct result of their lack of size. They were often overpowered in the paint, resulting in one of the weakest rebounding teams in the country and allowing a lot of blocks and points inside.
6'3" junior guard Parker Smith returns after leading the team with 12.0 points/game last year despite coming off the bench. He might play the same role this year, as Driscoll likes having him add scoring from the bench. He averaged nearly three made 3's per game last year while shooting over 35% from the arc, so he primarily does his damage as an outside shooter.
Another junior guard, 6'4" Jerron Granberry, was second in scoring last season with 12.0 points/game. Like Smith, Granberry is a good shooter from deep, nailing over two 3's per game last season while shooting nearly 33% from deep. Granberry is a little better at attacking the rim, though.
The key to the Osprey attack may be 6'4" senior Jimmy Williams. Williams is a unique player: he is a big body for a guard at over 215 pounds, but he is also expected to be the team's primary ballhandler. Last season he averaged 8.4 points, 5.1 rebounds and was also second on the team in assists. His versatility may make him the most important cog on the team.
Andy Diaz is the key to the Ospreys' inside game. The 6'7" junior forward averaged 10.6 points and 5.5 rebounds per game last season, and will be the key player for UNF in the post this season.
North Florida will in all likelihood have their best team in school history (they've only been around a few years). They should also finish in the top half of the A-Sun conference just behind powerhouse Belmont. The biggest thing going for them this season is certainly their experience. They return nearly every player from their team last year that had a lot of success in conference play. Any team with this much experience returning could be dangerous for young inexperienced major conference teams. The Ospreys will get shots at Alabama, Florida, Miami, Ohio State, Kansas State, Auburn and Virginia Tech in what looks to be one of the toughest non-conference schedules in college basketball. It's doubtful they have the talent or size to compete with these types of teams regularly, but with their amount of experience returning it would not be shocking at all for them to pull an upset in at least one of those games if they catch an opponent on an off-night.