Atlantic Sun Wrap & Tourney Preview

Posted by Brian Goodman on March 2nd, 2011

Bucky Dent is the RTC correspondent for the Atlantic Sun. The A-Sun is among the first of the conference tournaments to tip off, with action set to begin Wednesday.

Tournament Preview and Prediction

The top two seeds play Wednesday, giving them a day off before playing in semifinal matchups Friday night. While weird stuff happens in March, there’s nothing to suggest that Belmont or ETSU should lose against Kennesaw State or Campbell, respectively.

On the other hand, a North Florida upset of Jacksonville or a Mercer victory over Lipscomb wouldn’t come as a surprise. The Ospreys’ season would be made by beating their crosstown rivals and the Bears are as hot as anyone not named Belmont in this league.

Regardless of who wins those games, though, it would be a real surprise if Belmont and ETSU didn’t play for the championship as they were clearly the league’s best teams. Strangely enough, the one fly in the ointment might be if Lipscomb survives Mercer on the Bears’ floor and gets a third crack at its Nashville rivals in the semifinals. All bets might be off at that point, but there’s a reason Belmont was 19-1 in the league this year. It had the best team and could win any type of game – fast, slow or moderately-paced. Look for the Bruins to win the A-Sun tourney and perhaps win an NCAA Tournament game with the right draw.

A Look Back

  • A-Sun Shines: Some detractors have referred to this league as the “A-Shame” in recent years. There was nothing shameful about the conference this year, at least in terms of its climb from the bottom of college basketball’s rung. Its collective RPI was as high as 18th in January before settling into the low 20s, finishing at 21st. While that might not be Big East territory, it’s better than the 28th it finished last year. And it’s much better than more publicized leagues such as the Big South and Ohio Valley. A-Sun teams scored wins over ACC, SEC and Atlantic 10 teams to highlight the pre-conference slate. What’s more, the dominance of Belmont and the respect it earned in polls was a positive reflection for the league. All in all, it’s been one of the best years this league’s had in some time.
  • Belmont Rules: One knew the Bruins would be better this year, as they had a roster full of sophomores and juniors who gained experience last season. But no one knew they would be this good, routinely winning conference games by 30 and 40 points. They went 19-1 in the conference, losing only at crosstown rival Lipscomb when the Bison overcame an 18-point first half deficit. No one outside Tennessee beat them this year – they lost twice at Tennessee and probably should have won at least once – and they also lost to Vanderbilt after leading at halftime. With their depth, three-point shooting and physical style defensively, they play like a BCS-league squad. Some “Power Six” squad might see the Bruins drawn opposite them on March 13 and groan.

All-Conference First Team:

  • G: Josh Slater, Lipscomb – Top 10 in four different categories, including the league leader in steals at 3.1. Had the league’s first triple-double in three years on Feb. 17.
  • G: Ian Clark, Belmont – The top scorer on the league’s most balanced and best team. Clark was second in the conference in 3-point percentage at 42.1 percent.
  • F: Mike Smith, ETSU – A top 5 performer in scoring, rebounds and free throw percentage, Smith bounced back from sitting out last year with an injury.
  • F: Ayron Hardy, Jacksonville – Stats don’t really tell how much he means to the Dolphins. But for what it’s worth, Hardy was a top 5 performer in field goal percentage, free throw percentage and steals.
  • C: Adnan Hodzic, Lipscomb – Led the conference in field goal percentage and was second in scoring and rebounding despite constant double-teaming.

Second Team:

  • G: Drew Hanlen, Belmont – Want to know one big reason why the Bruins win? Try looking at Hanlen’s assist-turnover ratio, a mind-blowing 3-to-1.
  • G: Micah Williams, ETSU – What Smith started, this guy often finished. He was a top 10 performer in three categories – scoring, assists and three-pointers – and was a go-to guy in the endgame.
  • F: Markeith Cummings, Kennesaw State – Won the league’s scoring title and had three 30-point games in February, helping the Owls make the conference tournament.
  • F: Anthony Banks, Florida Gulf Coast – A top 10 performer in scoring and rebounding, Banks led the Eagles to a strong finish and gave their few fans hope for next year.
  • C: Isiah Brown, ETSU – A top 10 guy in rebounding, field goal percentage and blocked shots, Brown played with the most consistency he’s shown in a mercurial career.

Sixth Man of the Year—Parker Smith, North Florida: The Tennessee State transfer led his team in scoring without starting a game, giving the offensively-challenged Ospreys the punch they need off the bench and helping them finish .500 in the league.

Game of the Year – We go down to central Florida for this one, a 111-103 triple OT victory for Florida Gulf Coast at Stetson back on January 25. How wacky was this one? A 6’8, 280-pound center named Steve Forbes hit a board-and-cord 3 at the gun for Stetson to force OT, a 22 percent three-point shooter, Tyshawn Patterson, drilled a three to put the Hatters ahead in the last ten seconds of the second OT and freshman Christophe Varidel responded with his own three to force a third OT. The Eagles won after fouling five Stetson players out and forcing the home team to use players 6’5 and shorter in the third OT. For the night, FGCU shot 60 free throws, making 41. The game lasted 2 hours and 59 minutes, a pace which would absolutely flatter the Yankees and Red Sox.

Newcomer of the Year – Eric Griffin, Campbell: A top 10 performer in five categories, Griffin was second in the league in blocked shots with 59. In a year where the Camels were somewhat of a disappointment, he provided a consistent threat on both ends of the court.

Freshman of the Year – Corey Walden, Stetson: One reason why whoever replaces Derek Waugh as the program’s coach can hope for a quick turnaround is this guy. Walden became the team’s leader as the season progressed, finishing second in scoring while leading the team in assists and steals. In a season where they were a lot of good freshman in the league, Walden stood out.

Player of the Year – Mike Smith, ETSU: No player in the league had the overall value to his team that Smith did. He couldn’t be guarded by bigs or by smaller players because of his versatility. He could also play multiple positions defensively and can help handle the ball against pressure.

Coach of the Year – Rick Byrd, Belmont: Picked third in preseason polls, the Bruins became arguably the A-Sun’s best team in a decade. Byrd’s decision to play 11 players consistently and manage their minutes to make sure no one went more than 25 minutes most nights kept this team fresh and allowed it to wear people out.

Power Rankings

1. Belmont (27-4, 19-1): If the Bruins validate their great regular season by winning the conference tournament, they can expect a 12 or 13 seed, giving them a real chance to win a first round game.

2. East Tennessee State (21-10, 16-4): The Buccaneers won’t be 100 percent going into the tournament as Smith, Williams and backup guard Sheldon Cooley all sat out at Campbell February 24 with minor injuries. But they should still oppose Belmont in the title game.

3. Jacksonville (19-10, 13-7): Talk about your bad ways to go into the tournament. The Dolphins finished the regular season with baffling losses at Florida Gulf Coast and Stetson, and must now face a third bloodbath with crosstown foe North Florida in the quarterfinals.

4. Lipscomb (17-12, 12-8): After losing to Mercer in the regular season finale, the Bison turn around and play them again in the quarterfinals. Quite a comedown for a team picked to win the league in October.

5. Mercer (14-17, 11-9): Bob Hoffman deserves Coach of the Year votes for rallying his injury-riddled team to a strong finish and a winning record in league play. They will be a tough out on their home court.

6. North Florida (13-18, 10-10): Think the Ospreys aren’t licking their chops in anticipation of a third crack at Jacksonville in the quarterfinals after losing the first two games by a combined three points?

7. Campbell (12-18, 6-14): The Camels couldn’t even beat ETSU Thursday night without Smith, Williams and Cooley, then lost two days later to last place USC Upstate. No reason to think they’re going to be hanging around Macon past late Wednesday night.

8. Kennesaw State (8-22, 6-14): What incentive is there for this team in Wednesday’s conference tournament opener against Belmont after the Bruins clawed them 88-41 Saturday night in the regular season finale?

9. Florida Gulf Coast (9-19, 6-13): At least the Eagles finished the season strong, playing the type of solid defense which seemed beyond them for 2.5 months. There might be some hope for coach Dave Balza next year.

10. Stetson (8-23, 6-14): Coach Derek Waugh left as a winner as the Hatters bumped off Jacksonville in their final game Saturday night. Whoever is hired to replace him might be a winner sooner rather than later thanks to Waugh’s recruiting efforts – the best in the A-Sun the last two years.

11. USC Upstate (5-24, 4-15): This was perhaps more painful than coach Eddie Payne or the team’s staunchest fans might have imagined. Few teams in the nation were worse offensively than the Spartans this year as they averaged under 60 points per game.

Brian Goodman (966 Posts)

Brian Goodman a Big 12 microsite writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BSGoodman.

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