Building a Winner at Jacksonville
Entering his third season at Jacksonville, coach Tony Jasick appeared to have the personnel positioned and culture established to challenge reigning Atlantic Sun champion North Florida for the conference crown.
Then, adversity struck twice this preseason via injury and illness. Midway through the season with the team hovering around .500, adversity struck again.
Despite losing those three starters for the season, the Dolphins are chasing the A-Sun championship anyway. With a 6-2 record they trail UNF by one game in the standings and have won six of seven entering Saturday’s matchup with Stetson.
Jasick, the 2014 Hugh Durham National Coach of the Year while at IPFW, credits his staff for finding players who value winning and who operate with class on and off the court.
“They care about their teammates’ success. That goes a long way to building a culture of unselfishness. That’s been our message from day one,” Jasick said. “The guys who were in the program before we got here, they’ve embraced it ... it’s a combination of things that starts with high character guys who want to be coached.”
Most of those players are taking on a more significant role, because of these events:
Anders Misters, a 6-5 senior who started every game but Senior Night last season, tore an ACL in his knee on the last day of summer break. The Dolphins’ second-leading scorer last season (12.1 ppg) shot 38 percent on 3-pointers and 81 percent on free throws. He’s out for the season.
Cody Helgeland, a 6-8 transfer from South Georgia State, was expected to give Jasick and the Dolphins another outside shooter. He contracted mononucleosis during the preseason and about a month later was hospitalized with a rare intestinal virus. He’s out for the season.
And, on Jan. 14th in the first half of a conference game against Kennesaw State, 6-7 junior Darius Dawkins blew out his knee. He was leading the nation in 3-pointers made at the time, having drilled 70 through 17 games on 50 percent shooting, and was averaging 13.9 points per game. He’s out for the season, lost to injury for the second consecutive year.
Jacksonville is 14-11 - matching last season’s victory total - as Jasick tries to lead the program to its first winning season since 2010-11. These Dolphins have plugged along with solid defense, embracing the toughness necessary to string together stops. That defensive-minded foundation is what Jasick wants to build his program upon. In A-Sun games, they’ve held opponents to 1.03 points per possession, which leads the conference.
“We’ve done a great job guarding the basketball and rebounding on the defensive end,” Jasick said.
On the offensive end, different players have delivered each night during the team’s recent surge. Four Dolphins reached double figures in wins over Kennesaw, Lipscomb and USC-Upstate. Senior forward Josh Adeyeye exploded for 35 points in a nine-point win at Florida Gulf Coast. Darien Fernandez came off the bench to score 12 points on four shots, one of five Dolphins to hit double figures in the win over Stetson. And, J.R. Holder scored a season-high 23 points as Jacksonville held off FGCU by three points in the rematch.
Jacksonville scored at least 75 points in each game.
“We’re playing unselfishly on the offensive end, which has allowed guys to get some easier baskets,” Jasick said. “We’re taking more shots in rhythm. Earlier in the year we had a tendency to freeze the ball and overdribble the ball.”
Of course, Jasick knows the conference title still runs through North Florida, a deep-and-talented group with NCAA tournament experience led by dynamic point guard Dallas Moore and a bevy of 3-point bombers.
“You’ve got to give Matthew (Driscoll) and his staff a ton of credit,” Jasick said. “They’ve been there seven or eight years and they’ve done a terrific job building their roster to this point. They’re a veteran ballclub that can really, really, really score the ball. They stretch you out defensively.”
UNF handled Florida Gulf Coast 83-69 in the conference opener. The teams meet again Feb. 25th in the regular season finale. If the Dolphins continue winning games, the regular season title could be at stake. Always a goal, it takes on even more importance in the A-Sun because the conference tournament games are played on campus at the site of the higher-seeded team. Packing 3,984 fans into Veterans Memorial Coliseum with an NCAA tournament bid on the line would be a milestone for the program and one that seemed unlikely earlier this season.
“We need to get better defensively and finish games better. We’ve had relatively big leads in some games and let them slip,” Jasick said. “We’ve just got to take care of business. If at any point our guys start worrying about what (UNF) is doing, we’re going to be in trouble. Our margin is slim. We’ve got to be dialed in and focused on what we need to do.”