Jacksonville Sports Day

JU: Resiliency, Unity Fuel Basketball’s Conference Success

The calendar has flipped to February in 2018, and Jacksonville University men’s basketball finds itself in an enviable position. The Dolphins are in second place in the ASUN Conference and host league-leading Florida Gulf Coast Saturday night at Swisher Gym with an opportunity for a statement win against a perennial league favorite.

This scenario would have been hard to fathom two months ago to anyone outside of the program. Internally, the belief and focus has never wavered and has fueled this team to where it is today.

Fresh off of hosting a CIT game and improving its win total for the third straight season, Jacksonville University men’s basketball entered year four under Head Coach Tony Jasick riding a wave of optimism.

Yes, the team graduated seven seniors from the season before. Yes, the schedule featured such big name programs as Georgetown, NC State and Michigan. But, the trajectory was pointed solidly up.

There were some doubts. JU was picked to finish seventh out of eight teams in the ASUN by the league’s coaches and did not have a player honored on the Preseason All-Conference team. Additionally, the fall semester was one marked by adversity for the Dolphins.

Hurricane Irma forced the team out of its on campus home to various gyms around town for workouts and practice. Then, injuries and youth contributed to early season struggles.

Senior guard Devin Harris missed the summer trip to Canada with a foot injury, then four more games in the non-conference with an ankle tweak.

Junior forward Jace Hogan, a Naval Academy transfer who sat out all last season, was promptly injured mere moments into his first official practice and missed a grand total of six games the first two months of the season.

Junior guard Aamahne Santos broke his foot with the season just a few weeks away, and the junior college transfer will miss the entire season. Lastly, senior forward and all-around energy guy Antwon Clayton broke his thumb diving for a loose ball in practice days before the season opener at UAB and missed the first 16 games.

“Not an ideal situation. You could argue that we played most of the first semester without some portion of all five of our starters,” said Jasick. “It allowed some of our younger guys to play significant minutes, right off the bat.”

JU was forced to use seven different starting lineups and young players were thrown into the fire early. The result was a 5-11 record heading into the New Year.

The team showed its resilience through this difficult stretch. Jacksonville and its fans saw signs of that early optimism return with some of its key players. The Dolphins closed out non-conference play with a resounding home win in which Clayton made his season debut and Hogan also returned to the lineup one game after Harris.

Those three, paired with freshmen JD Notae and Jalyn Hinton, whose early season playing time had matured them as players, went into UNF Arena and snapped a nine-game losing streak to North Florida to start 1-0 in ASUN play for the first time in seven seasons. That was just the beginning.

With a last-second win over Stetson on Monday in DeLand, JU is 6-2 and in alone in second place in the ASUN standings with six games to play. The Dolphins have players amongst the conference leaders in per game scoring, rebounding, field goal percentage, blocks, steals and assists. They are doing it all thanks to a complete team buy-in.

“Our grit [defines this team],” said sophomore guard Tanner Rubio. “We have guys that care, guys that don’t like losing. A true competitive spirit.”

“We have a group of guys that have bought into one another,” said Jasick. “You look at the energy in practice and the energy on the bench and I think it’s been fantastic.”

When injured guys were relegated to the bench, and then again when part-time starters returned to reserve roles, support was constant from the sidelines to the floor. No one feels like they are bigger than the team, and that communal support has helped the team to its strong start.

“Even if you’re hurt, it’s an emphasis to be engaged every day in practice,” said Harris.

“We have a lot of faith in each other,” said Clayton. “We have each other’s backs on and off the floor. It’s a brotherhood this year.”

“For our team to worry about the stuff that matters in regards to this team has been good to see,” said Jasick. “Obviously, winning helps. It’s the old chicken and egg deal. What comes first? You got to have a little bit of both.”

The remarkable turnaround has ramped up interest and intrigue surrounding a program that still has yet to see Santos, former Ohio State Buckeye Dave Bell or Bethune-Cookman transfer Quinton Forrest play a minute. The job this year is not finished, however.

End goals include hosting an ASUN Championship Quarterfinal game, the reward for finishing in the top four in the league. From there, winning a tournament game for the first time since 2010, winning a conference championship for the first time since that same year and going dancing for the first time since 1986 are all on the table.

First, JU has a home date with ASUN leading Florida Gulf Coast, who comes to Swisher Gym on Saturday riding a 10-game win streak.

The Dolphins took the Eagles down to the wire in Ft. Myers last Saturday, and hold wins over FGCU at home three of the last four seasons. The league’s NCAA Tournament representative two years in a row is the biggest obstacle standing between JU and the opportunity to “go dancing” again.

“If we want to move forward, we will have to continue to be a connected group,” said Jasick.
he seeds have been laid for a basketball renaissance here at Jacksonville University, and the tradition of excellence may soon have a new chapter to write.

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