Stetson MBB ASUN Tournament Preview


Photo courtesy of Stetson Athletics.

            The 2020-21 Stetson men’s basketball regular season has come to a close. The ASUN Conference tournament begins this Thursday, with a ticket to March Madness up for grabs. Though the Hatters are far from the favorites in the conference, Stetson has the roster and the culture to hang with anyone in the ASUN. If the Hatters can do anything about it, their work this season is far from over.

            This week, the top eight teams in the conference will each have the opportunity to take home the ASUN crown, which also brings with it a guaranteed spot in the NCAA tournament. The ASUN tournament features three rounds, with the championship game taking place at 2 p.m. on Sunday, March 7. With a final record of ­­­­10-13 and a conference record of 7-9, Stetson is locked into the No. 7 seed in the tournament. As a result, the Hatters now stare down a first-round matchup with No. 2 Bellarmine University on Thursday night at 7 p.m. in Jacksonville.

            On paper, the Hatters’ 2020-21 season has been a step back for the program. A season ago, first-year head coach Donnie Jones led a complete revamp of the Hatter program, overcoming all expectations en route to a third-place finish in the conference. Stetson finished the 2019-20 season with a record of 16-17, including a 9-7 finish in conference play. Stetson fell to the Liberty Flames in last season’s conference semifinals, but the Hatters entered the offseason with their heads held high, and they had every right to do so. 

            The 2019 season was a turning point for the Hatter program. Under a brand-new head coach in Jones, Stetson saw the most wins in a season for the program in over a decade. With one of the youngest teams in the conference, including two ASUN Preseason All-Conference players, Rob Perry and Mahamadou Diawara, it seemed that the sky was the limit for the Hatters. Coaches around the ASUN took note, as the Hatters were picked to finish third in the conference this season in the annual Preseason Coaches’ Poll.

            With a 10-13 record this season, Stetson never quite saw those lofty expectations come to fruition. Their seventh-place finish is a far cry from where many saw this season ending for the Hatters, but the conference tournament brings with it a total reset and a chance for Stetson to make things right. 

            Obviously, this was no normal season. The disruption of COVID-19, an abbreviated schedule, or the myriad of new pandemic restrictions may each have contributed to Stetson’s lackluster regular-season record. The Hatters could make excuses, or they could put those struggles behind them and show the rest of the ASUN Conference what they are truly capable of. The reality is, the Hatters have the weapons and personnel to compete, even with the class of the conference.

            In many ways, Stetson’s 10-13 finish does not tell the whole story. The Hatters opened the season 0-4. They then rattled off three straight wins but stumbled again to a 4-9 record overall. 

            In the second half of the season, however, the Hatters finally showed signs of life. In early Feb., Stetson ripped off wins in five of seven games, including a dominant 91-75 win against conference foe Jacksonville University. In their final game of the regular season, Stetson cruised to an 85-68 win over No. 4 seed UNF. Stetson limps into the tournament after losing two of its last three games, but the Hatters showed enough flashes throughout the season to suggest that their explosive potential is still there.

            For Stetson to enjoy any success in the ASUN tournament, the Hatters will need their star power to show out consistently. No player will be more instrumental in that success than sophomore guard Rob Perry. 

            A two-time ASUN Conference player of the week this season, Perry picked up right where he left off from a season ago. In his second season with the Hatters, Perry solidified his place as one of the most unstoppable scorers in the conference, finishing fifth in the ASUN with 342 points on 40% shooting and 39% from behind the arc this season. The Hatter offense, the third-highest scoring in the ASUN, begins and ends with the contributions of Perry. He led the Hatters in scoring with 14.9 points per game. Stetson finished 6-1 in games in which he shot over 50% from the field and 4-12 when his shooting percentage dipped below 50. He must be at his best for the Hatters to make a deep tournament run.

            Perry’s backcourt partner, Chase Johnston, made an incredible impact this season in what is only the beginning of his college career. The national record-holder for three-pointers made in a high school career, Johnston blew away sky-high expectations in his freshman season. Stetson leaned on him early, as Johnston led the Hatters in total minutes by the season’s end. Johnston proved to be a force on the offensive end, finishing just behind Perry with 14.3 points per contest. His shot carried over well into college play, as Johnston instantly emerged as one of the best pure shooters in the ASUN. He buried 72 three-pointers at a 39% clip this season but also showcased a slashing ability that the Hatters sorely lacked in last year’s tournament. Johnston’s scoring abilities give the Hatters significant offensive insurance outside of Perry. The duo should keep even the stoutest defenses on edge throughout the postseason.

            The Hatters are far from a finesse perimeter team. To make that claim would discount the presence of Mahamadou Diawara, Stetson’s athletic big man who dominated opposing frontcourts all season long. He averaged just under 10 points on 57% shooting, nearly all of it coming from around the rim. Diawara showed significant growth offensively over the course of the season, highlighted by impressive footwork, confidence, and a wide array of post moves that he had not featured in his freshman campaign. A dominant force in the paint on both ends, Diawara’s real value for the Hatters comes on the defensive end. He finished the regular season with 22 blocks, the third most in the ASUN, and 126 rebounds. His physicality on both ends of the court adds another dimension to Stetson’s game-plan, allowing the Hatters to pound the ball inside just as effectively as they score from the perimeter.

            Senior guard Christiaan Jones has been another invaluable piece for the Hatters all season both on and off the court. The lone upperclassman on Stetson’s roster has been rock solid, particularly as the leader of one of the youngest rosters in the ASUN. Stetson’s third-leading scorer this season has enjoyed a tremendous four-years as a Hatter, just recently surpassing 1,000 points in his career, but his work may not be over just yet.

            Jones is an excellent all-around guard. He is fearless with the ball around the rim, and he has a knack for hitting the big shot in crunch time. He distributes the ball well and finished the season only one rebound behind Diawara for the Stetson lead. More than anything, Jones provides a gritty edge, a calming presence, and a level of experience that could not easily be replaced. Jones capped off his illustrious Stetson career with a 34 point explosion versus UNF on Feb. 26. An ASUN All-Tournament team selection a season ago, Jones is unlikely to let his senior season slip away easily.

            Perhaps the most unheralded piece of Stetson’s success this season is point guard Stephan Swenson. The freshman did not find a starting role until later in the season, but he made his mark as the floor general the Hatters lacked a season ago. He finished the regular season with 89 assists. That mark ranks third overall in the ASUN, and only three behind the conference lead, despite Swenson seeing over 100 fewer minutes than the ASUN assist champ. Most recently, Swenson dished out a season-high 11 assists in the season finale versus UNF. He has an excellent presence with the ball, he sees the floor well, and he has a knack for finding the open man in big spots.

            Stetson features several strong role players outside of its starting five. This includes the best three-point shooter in the ASUN Conference, Wheza Panzo. The sophomore forward fired 58 shots from deep this season and connected on a ridiculous 44% to lead the conference. He cannot be left open if opponents plan to keep up with the Hatter offense. 

            Freshman Josh Smith provides yet another offensive option off the bench. The forward has shown insane athleticism in the paint with several high-flying dunks to go along with a handful of blocks and nearly five rebounds per contest. He provides an essential scoring boost off the Stetson bench, especially if Diawara finds himself in foul trouble. Giancarlo Valdez rounds out Stetson’s usual rotation, providing solid relief work for Hatter point guards. In around 13 minutes per game, Valdez put up 36 assists. The Hatter bench will need to continue to contribute to keep Stetson dangerous deeper into games.

            Scoring should not be an issue for Stetson in the ASUN tournament. The Hatters finished third in the conference in scoring for the season, putting up around 72 points per game. They shoot the three well as a team, they spread the ball around well, and they boast impressive offensive rebounding numbers. The Hatters have the scorers to keep up with anyone – it is their effort on the defensive end that has been concerning. 

            Though the Hatters posted some of the highest steal and block numbers in the conference, those marks did not necessarily translate into consistent stops on the defensive end. Stetson allowed over 70 points per game, the second-highest mark in the ASUN. Simply put, the Hatters won games when they had room to score, but they did not have the defense to keep pace in lower-scoring affairs. Stetson lost 12 of 15 games when scoring 75 points or fewer. They lost only once when breaking 75. 

            Perhaps all of that will change in the tournament with a slower game and more methodical offensive game plans. It could come down to merely effort on defense, as Stetson has the athletes to keep opponents away from the basket. Regardless, the Hatters must shore up that side of the ball if they are to make any sort of run in the ASUN tournament and beyond.

            Thanks to their seventh-place finish, Stetson will face the Bellarmine Knights in the tournament’s opening round this Thursday. Bellarmine finished in second place in the ASUN in only its first year in the conference since moving up from NCAA Division II to Division I play. The Knights looked the part from the start, finishing with a 13-6 record overall. In their first game at the DI level, the Knights opened at the No. 6 ranked team in the country at the time, Duke, where they turned in a valiant effort in a 76-54 loss. The Knights finished second in the ASUN in both points scored and points allowed, illustrating the excellent all-around effort the team brought to the table in every contest.

            The Knights breezed through conference play, taking down Stetson twice on their way to a 10-3 finish in the ASUN. The two teams played back-to-back games in Jan., with the Knights taking both by final scores of 67-62 and 76-65. The Hatters blew large leads in both contests – they led Bellarmine by 10 in the first game and 20 in the second but lost both games. The Knights shut down Rob Perry in those games, limiting him to 10 total points on 18% shooting in the two games. Bellarmine overwhelmed the Hatters with a balanced offense, with four players averaging double-digit point totals in Pedro Bradshaw, Dylan Penn, CJ Fleming, and Ethan Claycomb. The Knights are no easy draw for Stetson, who will have to produce a strong effort on both ends of the floor to keep up with Bellarmine’s complete roster.

            Should the Hatters defeat Bellarmine in Thursday’s game, they would then likely face Liberty, the class of the ASUN, unless things were to go awry in the Flames’ first-round matchup with No. 8 Kennesaw State. That game would take place the next day, Friday, March 5 at 7 p.m. The ASUN Championship game will take place this Sunday at 2 p.m. with the winner guaranteed a spot in the NCAA tournament. It would be hard to see any team taking down conference powerhouse Liberty, but as fans of March Madness know, anything can happen in these single-elimination tournaments.

            Their final record may not indicate it, but the Stetson Hatters are a better team than they were a season ago when they advanced to the ASUN semifinals. Just last season, Stetson nearly defeated eventual conference champion Liberty, falling by a final score of 66-62. This season, the Hatters have a more complete roster, more dynamic playmakers, and an entire year of valuable experience under their belt. Stetson was the No. 7 seed for a reason, so it is tough to predict a series of upsets on their way to the ASUN crown. It will be a difficult road for the Hatters, but not an impossible one. 

The ASUN tournament begins this Thursday, and the Hatters will have a chance to put a disappointing regular season behind them. This is March, and Stetson could be in the thick of things.


All statistics courtesy of, College Basketball Reference, and