Jacksonville University men’s basketball (12-6, 0-1) heads back on the road for the first time in the new year, and will be looking for some of that traveling magic that sparked the Dolphins to its best start in six seasons.
JU dropped the conference opener at home to North Florida Saturday night, and now play a team it has never beaten and the biggest surprise in the ASUN over the course of two days. First, let’s break down the JU lineup and see where the Dolphins stand.
Darien Fernandez is coming off of what has to be one of his most frustrating games of his career, in which he fouled out after just 12 minutes, with one rebound as his only statistic. Tanner Rubio came off the bench to drop 17 on 5-8 shooting from deep, and continues to give Jacksonville a scoring spark in relief. Fernandez needs to play better though, as perhaps more than any other player on the team, as he goes, the Dolphins go.
Devin Harris scored 12, but on just 3-12 shooting, and did not record a block, steal or assist in a game for the first time this season. JR Holder had 13 on 4-12 shooting. Two guys who make a living getting to the rim were not able to against UNF, and might not find the sledding any easier this weekend.
Cody Helgeland has missed the last two games after suffering a leg injury in the waning moments of the win over South Carolina State, and Jacksonville needs the junior back to help stretch the floor and provide size this weekend. Darius Dawkins dropped 13 threes last Tuesday and then responded to the added attention Saturday night by knocking down all three of the midrange jumpers he took to drop 12 more points against the Ospreys en route to ASUN Co-Player of the Week honors. His ability to be diverse is crucial.
These three are looking for bounce back performances after Omar El Manasterly, Antwon Clayton and Demontrez Austin combined to shoot 2-8 from the field, and turned it over four times with only one assist while committing 10 fouls Saturday night. Austin did rip down a team high 10 rebounds, which was good to see against the size of UNF, something JU will face again this weekend.
Jacksonville’s first opponent on the road is the NJIT Highlanders (8-9, 0-1), who are coming off of a road loss to USC Upstate to open up ASUN play. NJIT features the league’s third leading scorer in Damon Lynn, a volume shooter who can score from anywhere when he gets hot. Lynn dropped 20 on 5-11 shooting from 3-point range in Newark last year, and the Highlanders swept the Dolphins last season in two very different games. The first meeting in Newark saw NJIT score 38 points in the paint and hold JU to 35 percent shooting, and the rematch in Jacksonville saw the Dolphins turn it over 17 times leading to 22 points off.
It will be interesting to see if NJIT, in its first year under former assistant Brain Kennedy after Jim Engles took the Columbia job last spring, will still have JU’s number. Most of the pieces, Lynn, senior guards Tim Coleman and Rob Ukawuba, as well as sophomore big man Mohamed Bendary are all back for the squad picked to finish third in its second year in the ASUN.
Jacksonville travels south after NJIT to face USC Upstate (11-7, 1-0) on Saturday. The Spartans are the surprise of the league so far, knocking off NJIT for the third time in three tries since the Highlanders joined the ASUN. Not much was expected of the Spartans this season, they were picked last in the preseason polls, who have already topped last year’s win total and seem to have found an identity again in the post-Ty Greene era. Senior big man Michael Buchanan is averaging a double-double this season and seven different Spartans have lead the team in scoring as part of the balanced attack in Spartanburg this year.
Jacksonville at NJIT and at USC Upstate can be seen on ESPN3 and heard on 92.5 FM and mixlr.com/judolphins. Thursday’s tip is at 7 pm, Saturday’s at 2 pm.