NASHVILLE, Tenn. – On the eve of the 2008 General Shale Brick Atlantic Sun Men’s Basketball Championships, the conference announced its postseason awards highlighted by Gardner-Webb’s Thomas Sanders winning the Player of the Year and Nate Blank earning the Freshman of the Year award.
Sanders, a senior from Sugarland, Texas had a breakout year in his final season in Boiling Springs, N.C., increasing his scoring from 11.0 per game last year to 17.9 this year, third in the A-Sun. His rebounding production also skyrocketed, as he grabbed 11.2 rebounds per game, up from 7.0 last season, to rank fifth in the NCAA. His per-game average trails only B elmont’s Adam Sonn as the highest average in the A-Sun over the last decade. He owns 20 double-doubles, tying him for third in the NCAA.
Blank came to Gardner-Webb from Terre Haute, Ind., and began making an impact for the Runnin’ Bulldogs immediately, averaging 11.0 points per game while connecting on 50 percent of his shots at the Lexington Regional of the 2K Sports College Hoops Classic. He hit for a season-high 25 points, including 6-for-11 from 3-point range at Connecticut later in November. In conference play he averaged 11.0 points per game and connected on 45.0 percent of his 3-point attempts.
Campbell’s Jonathan Rodriguez, Belmont’s Justin Hare, ETSU’s Courtney Pigram and Jacksonville’s Ben Smith joined Sanders on the First Team All-Atlantic Sun squad. Like Sanders, Rodriguez averaged a double-double for the season, leading the conference in scoring at 21.0 points per game and grabbing 10.2 rebounds per game. He ranks among only six in the nation averaging at least 20 points per game and 10 rebounds per game. Like Rodriguez, Hare and Pigram made the First-Team for the second straight season. Hare led the Bruins to their first outright Atlantic Sun Championship, averaging 15.0 points per game and connecting on 90.4 percent from the charity stripe, tops in the league and ranking as one of just six in nation hitting at least a 90-percent clip. Pigram, the 2007 Player of the Year, led the Buccaneers in scoring, 15.9 points per game and in assists, 3.5 per game. Smith ran the point for the Dolphins, leading them to a 12-4 season and the second seed in the upcoming tournament. A member of the 2007 All-Freshman team with Rodriguez, he increased his scoring from 9.9 to 15.7 while finishing second in the league in assists at 4.75 per game.
Lipscomb’s Eddie Ard leads the Second-Team joined by four underclassmen, ETSU’s Kevin Tiggs, Belmont’s Shane Dansby, Stetson’s Garfield Blair and Mercer’s Jam es Florence. Ard, a Second-Team member last season, became the 16th player in Lipscomb's history to eclipse the 1,600 point mark and the second to reach this mark since Lipscomb entered the NCAA. Tiggs validated the hype surrounding him as the 2007 NJCAA Coaches Association Division II National Player of the Year, scoring 15.2 points per game and grabbing 5.5 boards per game. He also won a pair of Player of the Week awards. Dansby also won two Player of the Week awards in his breakout season. After averaging 5.0 points per game last season, he scored in double figures in his first 18 games of the season en route to averaging 13.8 points per game. Blair, who joined Sanders and Rodriguez as the only three in the A-Sun to lead his respective team in scoring and rebounding, let the Hatters, picked ninth in both preseason polls, to the third seed. Florence, the 2007 Freshman of the Year, finished second in the league in scoring at 19.0 and joined Rodriguez among six current sophomores in the nation to have reached 1,000 points for their careers.
Blank earned a unanimous spot on the All-Freshman team. A pair of teammates from Lipscomb, Josh Slater and Adnan Hodzic, plus Jacksonville’s Ayron Hardy and Belmont’s Jordan Campbell make up the rest of the team. Slater and Hodzic turned up their contributions in A-Sun play. Slater averaged 11.1 points per game in conference play after scoring just 4.8 per game in the non-conference season. Hodzic increased his output from 5.2 to 12.2 points per game and enters the A-Sun Championship on the heels of averaging 22.5 points per game last weekend in wins against Gardner-Webb and Campbell. Hardy became the fourth Dolphin named to the All-Freshman team in head coach Cliff Warren’s three seasons at the helm. Hardy shot 54.7 percent in A-Sun games. Campbell joins Hare, Andy Wicke and Will Peeples as current Bruins to have earned All-Freshman status. He shot 49.0 percent from the floor and grabbed 5.3 rebounds per game, second among freshme n.
After back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances, Belmont head coach Rick Byrd captured his first Atlantic Sun Coach of the Year honor. His Bruins registered road wins at Cincinnati and at Alabama, to become the first A-Sun team to win two regular-season games against “BCS” schools in a single season since Samford defeated St. John’s and Alabama in 1999-2000. The Bruins enter the 2008 Championship riding a 10-game winning streak, the fifth-longest active streak in the nation and attempting to win three straight tournament titles, a feat not yet accomplished in the Atlantic Sun.
Mercer’s Calvin Henry captured the Defensive Player of the Year award on the heels of leading the conference in blocked shots and finishing third in defensive rebounding. He posted two games of five blocked shots and recorded at least one block in 27 of 28 games this season.
The Atlantic Sun Conference is a 12-member league committed to Building Winners for Life, with a focus on academic and athletic integrity and a balance between the two for the student-athlete, and maintaining a high level of sportsmanship. Headquartered in Macon, Ga., the A-Sun encompasses six of the top eight media markets in the Southeast. The A-Sun consists of some of the most dynamic private and public institutions in the region: Belmont University, Campbell University, East Tennessee State University, Florida Gulf Coast University, Gardner-Webb University, Jacksonville University, Kennesaw State University, Lipscomb University, Mercer University, University of North Florida, University of South Carolina Upstate and Stetson University.