Checking In On… the Big South

Posted by Brian Goodman on November 30th, 2011

Mark Bryant oversees multimedia at the Big South Conference.  You can follow his updates on Twitter @BigSouthSports.

Reader’s Take:

The Week That Was

  • Major Conference Assault… Big South teams threw down a few notable upsets since our last report: Presbyterian over Cincinnati 56-54 (Big East), Coastal Carolina over Clemson 60-59 (ACC), Campbell over Iowa 77-61 (Big Ten), and UNC Asheville over Utah 87-65 (Pac-12). Add that to Coastal Carolina’s victory over LSU (SEC), as noted in the last update, and the Big South has wins over teams from five of the six BCS conferences (regrettably no games against Big 12 teams remain, 0-2 in the only chances).
  • Temporarily Perfect… For the first time in conference history, two teams opened the season with five straight wins. Coastal Carolina and Campbell each reached 5-0 before dropping game number six (Campbell to Creighton and Coastal to FIU).
  • League Play Begins… Again this season, Big South Conference play gets a December preview before beginning in earnest on New Year’s Eve.  Most teams will get two chances to notch an early conference win, with games  on Thursday 12/1 and Saturday 12/3.  High Point and Asheville are the only two teams who will have just one game against a Big South foe this weekend.

Power Rankings:

1. UNC Asheville – (3-4/0-0)  The record gives an illusion of a lackluster start, but two of those losses were to top five programs (UNC & UConn) and another was to ACC foe NC State.  The one the Bulldogs would probably like back is the two-point loss to College of Charleston. Of course, this team also obliterated Utah by a healthy 22-point margin. Asheville is fine, and the tough early tests should only serve to get the squad ready for the games ahead.

2. Coastal Carolina – (5-1/0-0) While we figured any reports of CCU’s death were greatly exaggerated, getting early wins against both LSU and Clemson certainly opened some eyes.  The other contests on the Chanticleers’ schedule don’t offer much to go on so far, but even without some of the big-name players of past years, the two-time defending regular season champs are not going away anytime soon.

3. Campbell (5-1/0-0) - Rocketing up the charts, I present the Fighting Camels of Campbell. Okay, I was fooled before in thinking this team would be a middle-of-the-pack bunch this year because they are bringing it! Led by highlight-worthy senior Eric Griffin and rapidly-ascending freshman Trey Freeman, Campbell may well have something to say about the Big South race this season.

4. VMI (3-2/0-0) – The Keydets have knocked off equal and lesser competition so far, with losses to larger out-of-conference foes Air Force and Ohio State, those games also being the only ones with VMI held under 80 points.  Led by Keith Gabriel and ESPN Top 10 dunker Stan Okoye, VMI is still running and gunning. We will soon see if they can outpace conference foes this year.

5. Presbyterian College (3-3/0-0) – The Blue Hose got deserved recognition and attention for grabbing a win at top 20 Cincinnati in a demonstration of what can happen when they are clicking. A team that has seen the bottom of the standings in recent years should be no worse than the middle of the pack this season, and could frustrate several league foes along the way.

6. High Point (2-4/0-0) – They may not have the most attractive record to date, but the Panthers have been in every game they’ve played right down to the end.  Three of the four losses have been by only four or five points (the other was a 12-point margin). So while High Point has more losses than wins to show for November, the team has also demonstrated a little more fight than they have gotten credit for in the last couple of years and that could be important against familiar opposition in conference.

7. Charleston Southern (3-2/0-0) Saying your most impressive win of the year is against Stetson may not be shaking the pillars of college hoops, but the Bucs do bring a three-game win streak into league play after an 0-2 start, and that’s a very good sign for CSU. Bump them up for now, but see what comes out of the first week of December for a better barometer.

8. Liberty (2-5/0-0) – Ummm…dropping far down, at least for this week, is Liberty.  The Flames have lost four straight, and not exactly against a murderer’s row.  LU still has a fair chance to be in the mix this season, but the early skid does not offer much to go on. That said, the Flames have come back strong after slow starts before.

9. Radford (3-4/0-0) – What gives?  Radford has lost three in a row since the last report and moved up two positions?  Believe me, it says more about the other teams than it does Radford. We still think the Highlanders will have a rocky road to travel this season, and will likely finish at or near the bottom, but for now, slot them here.

10. Gardner-Webb (3-5/0-0) – Well, the record isn’t pretty, but some of that is deceptive. Yes, GWU is 3-5, and yes, that includes a four-game losing streak, but Bulldogs had to deal with five games in nine days at the Hoosier Invitational–and still had enough in the tank to pull out an overtime victory on that ninth day (76-74 over Chattanooga). So it’s bad, but it’s not ALL bad.

11. Winthrop (1-5/0-0) – Honestly, this is a “how the mighty have fallen” moment.  Winthrop was the class of the Big South for years, and has found a way to matter in the postseason even when not playing from the top, but things have taken a turn this year.  Winthrop needs a remedy–and fast.  Their lone win came at the expense of Central Penn, a 107-68 thrashing. Outside of that game and a four-point loss to Drake, Winthrop has not seriously challenged its opponents, losing by 12, 21, 22, and 23.  To be fair, two of those losses were Virginia and Marquette, and the Eagles were close for much of the Virgina game before being blown away down the stretch, but there aren’t many genuine positives to latch onto yet this season.

Looking Ahead

There are other games, sure, but the headliners right now are the conference pairings.  Here are some key ones to look for…

  • Liberty — at Campbell 12/1 & at Coastal 12/3… a very tough 1-2 punch to take for Liberty, facing two early power teams on the road, but a sincere measuring stick for where the Flames really stand.
  • VMI — at Coastal 12/1 & at Charleston Southern 12/3… if you’re looking for entertaining basketball, you should find it on VMI’s road trip, with plenty of running, and threes, and dunks…defense may be optional in these games.
  • Winthrop — at Presbyterian 12/1 & at Gardner-Webb 12/3… talk about measuring sticks–is it the old guard or the up-and-comers who will prevail?  Has Winthrop really fallen that far or was that an illusion?

Caught on Film

I’m not sure it gets much better than this–I can honestly say that it just doesn’t matter how many times I watch this dunk by Campbell’s Eric Griffin: the take-off from the Big South logo just shy of the free throw line, the posterizing of the unfortunate NC A&T player, the sheer vertical involved, you name it…I am spellbound each and every time.

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Checking In On… the Big South Conference

Posted by Brian Goodman on November 19th, 2011

Mark Bryant oversees multimedia at the Big South Conference.  You can follow his updates on Twitter @BigSouthSports.

Reader’s Take

 

The Week That Was

  • New Gym, Part One: YES… UNC Asheville got its opportunity to show off the new Kimmel Arena with a marquee match-up against the top-ranked North Carolina Tar Heels on ESPNU.  Eddie Biedenbach’s Bulldogs played with a tenacity befitting their nickname, hanging tight most of the way before falling, 91-75.
  • New Gym, Part Two: NO, but that’s OK… Coastal Carolina had once hoped that this past Tuesday would be the chance for the Chants to unveil their own shiny new room, but delays in construction may mean that’s a year away.  No matter: CCU welcomed LSU from the SEC to small Kimbel Arena in Conway — then proceeded to pull off the 71-63 upset.
  • Meet The New Member, Same as the Old Member: Campbell is back in the Big South.  The Fighting Camels were a founding member of the conference and played hoops with the Big South from 1983-94.  CU was 129-128 in those seasons–and stays on the plus side with wins in the first three games this year.

UNC Asheville Opened Up Its New Digs, But With A Loss To North Carolina

Power Rankings

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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

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Checking in on… the Atlantic Sun

Posted by Brian Goodman on February 20th, 2011

Bucky Dent is the RTC correspondent for the Atlantic Sun Conference.

A Look Back

  • Belmont Clinches: By knocking off East Tennessee State, 68-58, Thursday night in Nashville, the Bruins clinched the regular season title and the top seed for next month‘s conference tournament in Macon, Georgia. Belmont also gained no worse than an automatic bid to the NIT should it somehow stumble in Macon, which looks doubtful. Easily the deepest, most physical and most talented team in the A-Sun, the Bruins could face tough semifinal and championship challenges in Macon but also appear well-equipped to handle them. Of course, weird things happen in March.
  • Bear Essentials: Back on January 31, Mercer senior forward Brandon Moore went down for the season with a torn ACL, joining teammate Jeff Smith on the sidelines. Instead of going back to their Georgia cave and whimpering in pain for the season’s remainder, though, the Bears fought back. Granted, a schedule larded with home games against A-Sun slugs didn’t hurt, but give Mercer credit for ripping off four straight wins and improving to 9-7 in the league, clinching a spot in the conference tournament. Bob Hoffman probably deserves a few Coach of the Year votes for this little surge.
  • Player of the Week: Mike Smith, East Tennessee State: Smith won the award for the fourth time, the most in recent A-Sun history, by averaging 25 points, 8.5 rebounds and 2.5 assists in homecourt wins over Jacksonville and North Florida. The clear favorite for A-Sun Player of the Year, Smith is in the league’s top five in scoring and rebounding. Just missing the gold medal were Campbell’s Eric Griffin, who scored 22.5 points per contest against Lipscomb and Belmont last week, and Markeith Cummings of Kennesaw State, who rattled off three 30-point games in a four-game span to fuel the Owls’ first extended burst of competence this year.

Power Rankings

1. Belmont (24-4, 16-1)
Next Week: 2/19 vs. USC Upstate, 2/24 at Mercer
These guys are good. How good? Consider that they can fall behind North Florida by 11 with six an a half minutes left, as they did earlier this month in arguably their worst game of the season, and still rip off a 20-2 run to steal a 69-67 win. The Bruins have gotten everyone’s best shot for most of the conference season and have only slipped up once — in the second half of a January 25 loss at Lipscomb. Stat geek alert: Guard Kerron Johnson ranks sixth in Division-I in steal percentage (percentage of possessions that a player notches a steal while in the game) according to Ken Pomeroy’s metrics. On most teams, Johnson would start. Here, he’s backing up ultra-steady Drew Hanlen.

2. East Tennessee State (19-10, 14-4)
Next Week: 2/19 at Florida Gulf Coast, 2/24 at Campbell
Remember two weeks ago when we warned that the Buccaneers could slip up on their road trip to Florida Gulf Coast and Stetson and you probably guffawed? That was before they somehow didn’t score in the last 5 minutes, 38 seconds and blew an 11-point lead in a brutal 55-54 loss at Stetson. While coach Murry Bartow was correct in nothing that the game affected nothing as far as the team’s NCAA hopes, since this league will only get one bid, it might keep this team from beating out the Big East’s 13th place team for a spot in the CBI or collegeinsiders.com tourney. That’s why ETSU couldn’t afford to take that loss.

3. Jacksonville (17-8, 11-5)
Next week: 2/18 vs. Kennesaw State, 2/20 vs. Mercer, 2/24 at Florida Gulf Coast
A third-place team might normally rate some consideration for the conference tournament. Not so with the Dolphins, who are 0-4 against the league’s big boys — Belmont and ETSU — with an average defeat margin of nearly 16 points. What that says is that this team beats the people it should and simply doesn’t have enough height or offensive punch to overcome the superior foes. Jacksonville’s only chance of winning the A-Sun tourney is to have one of the big boys lose along the way and hope that when they have to play the other that it either has a hot-shooting game or the other team can’t find the bucket.

4. Lipscomb (16-10, 11-6)
Next Week: 2/19 vs. East Tennessee State, 2/24 at Kennesaw State
Senior guard Josh Slater had one of the season‘s unique triple-doubles in a Thursday night win over USC Upstate, finishing with ten points, 12 assists and ten steals. It was the first triple-double in the Bisons’ Division-I era and the first time any A-Sun player notched 10 steals in a game against a Division-I foe since 1997. Lipscomb’s task is to build momentum for the conference tournament, when it might earn a third crack at Belmont in the semifinals. One gets the feeling that might be the only way the Bruins don’t win the A-Sun tourney.

5. Mercer: (12-15, 9-7)
Next Week: 2/18 at North Florida, 2/20 at Jacksonville, 2/24 vs. Belmont
Ball control has been the Bears‘ strength during their unexpected run into the league‘s middle of the back. In their last seven games, they are averaging just nine turnovers per game and have had four games with fewer than ten, including a six-turnover performance in Tuesday night‘s 57-55 win over Kennesaw State. It’s helped that senior guard Mark Hall, who’s not been known as a scorer in his Mercer career, has suddenly started draining three-pointers as though he were former Bear great James Florence. Hall drilled five in a Feb. 10 OT win over Stetson and added three against Kennesaw State.

6. North Florida: (10-17, 7-9)
Next Week: 2/18 vs. Mercer, 2/20 vs. Kennesaw State, 2/24 at Stetson
Guard Parker Smith is the nation‘s top scorer among players who haven‘t started a game, but he‘s been locked in a deep, dark forest lately. Since dropping 30 points on Belmont February 5, he’s not been able to ignite this team off the bench, going 2-for-13 in a Sunday loss at East Tennessee State. Coach Matthew Driscoll has been more concerned with Smith’s performance in other areas, feeling that the sophomore isn’t doing enough on the defensive end. As presently constructed, the Ospreys aren’t good enough to win many games unless all their key players are contributing.

7. Kennesaw State (8-18, 6-10)
Next week: 2/18 at Jacksonville, 2/20 at North Florida, 2/24 vs. Lipscomb
Welcome to the season, Owls. What took you so long? Finally, this team has decided to play hard on defense and share the ball on offense, much as folks expected they could in preseason. While it might not be enough to get them a decent seed in the A-Sun tourney, they could be a tough out for somebody in the first round. Sophomore Markeith Cummings has been arguably the league’s hottest player besides Smith, scoring 30 points in three of his last four games. Forward LaDaris Green has channeled his inner Kenneth Faried with five straight double-doubles.

8. Campbell (12-15, 6-11)
Next week: 2/19 at Florida Gulf Coast, 2/24 vs. East Tennessee State
Indulging in a farewell swipe at the A-Sun, Camels coach Robbie Laing said one reason his team is struggling is because they don‘t have a travel partner and therefore always catch fresh teams, such as when they lost 78-57 to Belmont February 12 by allowing the last 16 points. Another reason Campbell is struggling is its inability to consistently score the ball as it’s been held under 70 points in 12 of its 17 conference games. While the recent absence of guard Lorne Merthie (knee) hasn’t helped, the simple truth is this team hasn’t played very well since the middle of December.

9. Stetson: (7-21, 5-12)
Next week: 2/21 at Florida Gulf Coast, 2/24 vs. North Florida
Thursday night‘s 64-61 home loss to Campbell was a gut punch for the Hatters, which are in ninth place in the league and would miss the conference tournament if it started tomorrow. Officially a game behind the Camels, Stetson was swept in the season series, so it would lose any tiebreaker. Turnovers and poor foul shooting have hampered it in many of the close losses they’ve had lately. Those are things young teams traditionally struggle with and they have bitten the Hatters hard.

10. Florida Gulf Coast: (6-19, 3-12)
Next week: 2/19 vs. Campbell, 2/21 vs. Stetson
The Eagles‘ season is down to five games as they‘re ineligible for the conference tournament. All they can do is serve as spoiler for the likes of the Camels and Hatters, who visit Ft. Myers in the league’s riveting battle for eighth place and the last spot in the A-Sun tourney. One piece of good news for FGCU is that underclassmen such as Anthony Banks, Christophe Varidel and Chase Fieler have led the team in scoring in 14 of the last 15 games. The January departure of Reed Baker might have been the best thing to happen to this team because Varidel wouldn’t have gotten enough playing time to average 16.7 points per game in the last 13 games had Baker stuck around.

11. USC Upstate: (4-23, 3-14)
Next Week: 2/19 at Belmont
Coach Eddie Payne finally blew his stack after a listless loss to North Florida February 11, saying his team lacked leadership and didn‘t know how to win. If that remark was designed to light a fire under his young squad, it didn‘t work, as it promptly lost to Jacksonville and Lipscomb by an average of 14.5 points. The one ray of sunshine in Spartanburg has been the recent play of Ricardo Glenn, who had 16 points and nine rebounds in a 16-minute burst of excellence against Jacksonville. Glenn, Torrey Craig and Babatunde Olumuyiwa will comprise one of the league’s top frontcourts in 2012-13.

Playing the Percentages

Every week, we‘ll take a look at an intriguing stat around the conference and decide fluke or trend. This week, we zero in on Kennesaw State sophomore LaDaris Green, who has recorded five consecutive double-doubles, including a 14-point, 13-rebound effort at Mercer Tuesday night. The verdict is trend. The 6’9 Green is active enough and is playing the most consistent basketball of a career which still has two-plus years left. As he matures and gets stronger, he should only improve.

A Look Ahead

Belmont has won the league and ETSU will likely finish second, but there‘s still much at stake in terms of momentum and positioning as A-Sun teams head down the homestretch.

  • Mercer could still catch Lipscomb for fourth place if it wins out, including a home game next week with the Bisons. As long as they don’t slip out of fifth, though, the Bears will likely host Lipscomb in the A-Sun quarterfinals March 3.
  • Campbell has a chance to seal a spot in the conference tournament despite its recent struggles. Its schedule (at Florida Gulf Coast, ETSU, USC Upstate) looks favorable and it has a tiebreaker on ninth place Stetson.
  • Kennesaw State has a brutal ending to its regular season (at Jacksonville, at North Florida, Lipscomb, Belmont). The Owls could play decently and lose all four, and if they do, it could open the door for Stetson to beat them out for the last spot.
  • Belmont tries to keep its momentum going for the A-Sun tourney as it hosts USC Upstate Saturday night before a regular season-ending road trip to Georgia, where it plays Mercer and Kennesaw State.
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Checking in on… the Atlantic Sun

Posted by Brian Goodman on January 21st, 2011

Bucky Dent is the RTC correspondent for the Atlantic Sun Conference.

A Look Back

  • Leaving it in Bruins: Belmont isn’t just winning its games, it’s flat-out plundering this conference. Going into a Friday date at USC Upstate, the Bruins have won their first eight A-Sun games by an average of 29 points per game and are also receiving votes in the coaches’ top 25. Ken Pomeroy’s tempo-free metrics rank them as the 25th-best team nationally, an eye-opener for those who would prefer to denigrate their accomplishments because of the A-Sun. Anyone who’s seen Belmont and its BCS league-level depth in person would know better.
  • Bucs Going Wild: As for the league‘s remainder, non-Belmont division, East Tennessee State is clearly the crop‘s cream. It’s won eight in a row, including an impressive 74-62 win Saturday at Jacksonville in which it led wire-to-wire. The Buccaneers are shooting much better than they were earlier in the season, but the key has been a defense which consistently denies the opposition clean looks, regardless of whether they’re using the “pack line” man or matchup zones. And now they are headed home to play five straight in the Mountain States Center, where they’re 5-0 this year.
  • Player of the Week: Ian Clark, Belmont: The Bruins’ sophomore shooting guard was a model of efficiency in a 90-55 win over Campbell Saturday night, requiring just eight shots to score 20 points as he canned 4-4 on three-pointers. Clark averaged 16 points per contest in easy wins over Lipscomb and Campbell. Just missing the gold medal for a second straight week was East Tennessee State’s Mike Smith, whose 20-point, 20-rebound game Jan. 8 against Florida Gulf Coast was the first of its kind at ETSU in 52 years. Stetson freshman Luis Jacobo earns the bronze after averaging 17 ppg and going 15-27 from the floor in a split against Mercer and Kennesaw State.

Power Rankings

1. Belmont (16-3, 8-0)

Next Week: 1/21 at USC Upstate, 1/23 at East Tennessee State, 1/25 at Lipscomb

If the Bruins are to lose in the league during the regular season, it will probably happen at ETSU or Lipscomb. If they get through those two unscathed, the only obstacle taller than a speed bump is a February trip to Jacksonville. The recent play of centers Mick Hedgepeth and Scott Saunders brings to mind a collective All-American. The duo is averaging nearly 34 points between them in the last three games while splitting playing time almost right down the middle. Most teams in this league dream of having one decent center, but Belmont has two good ones. That’s why it could win a game in the NCAA Tournament — if it makes it there.

2. East Tennessee State (12-7, 7-1)

Next Week: 1/21 vs. Lipscomb, 1/23 vs. Belmont, 1/25 vs. USC Upstate

Moving Smith to power forward, where he can beat bigger players off the dribble and still moose his way to the bucket against smaller defenders, was the switch which ignited this team. It also hasn’t hurt that senior guard Micah Williams has finally remembered that he can score 20 points any time he plays, averaging 19.3 in the last three games. Now if the Buccaneers could just extract a little more consistency from the mercurial Justin Tubbs, who can’t miss one game and is borderline useless the next, they could be the one team in this league that could prevent a Belmont title.

3. Jacksonville (11-6, 5-3)

Next week: 1/22 at Kennesaw State, 1/26 at North Florida

One thing the last two weeks revealed is that the Dolphins are a notch below Belmont and ETSU, having lost to that duo by a combined 43 points. One major reason is that they can’t make jumpers, having canned just 36 of 145 three-pointers over the last ten games and 16 of 72  in the last five. Opponents are having an easy time taking away the dribble-drive from this quick team and forcing it to settle for jumpers. Unless guys like Travis Cohn and Tevin Galvin can find the range from the arc, every game will continue to be a rocking-chair gut-grinder for Jacksonville.

4. Lipscomb (10-7, 5-3)

Next Week: 1/21 at East Tennessee State, 1/23 at USC Upstate, 1/25 vs. Belmont

Of all the ugly things that happened to the Bisons in their 88-52 beatdown at Belmont Jan. 13, the worst might have been seeing the 72-game double-figure scoring streak of center Adnan Hodzic end after he was held to seven points by Hedgepeth and Saunders. Predictably, Hodzic rebounded with 33 in a 92-81 win over Campbell Monday night. If Lipscomb is to generate any kind of momentum for a run through the conference tournament — the regular season title seems out of reach at this point — a win at ETSU Friday night would be a wonderful starting point.

5. North Florida: (7-12, 4-4)

Next Week: 1/22 at Mercer, 1/26 vs. Jacksonville

And now we get to the point where there‘s almost no difference between the teams. The Ospreys are assigned this spot by dint of a brutal non-conference schedule and their ability to win on the road in the league, proven Thursday night when they cooled off Kennesaw State. Parker Smith continues to lead the league in three-point hits per game, giving the team the best bench production in the non-Belmont division. Had UNF been able to finish out close losses against Lipscomb and ETSU, it would be 6-2 in the conference.

6. Campbell: (9-9, 3-6)

Next Week: 1/22 vs. Stetson, 1/25 at Longwood

Courtesy of the Camels, a Florida Gulf Coast team which looked like a good bet to go 0-for-conference play picked up its first league win Thursday night. Campbell’s not exactly leaving the A-Sun with a bang, having lost six of its last eight in the league. It’s turning the ball over too much and not playing the kind of sticky defense which characterized its run to a co-conference title last year. While Lorne Merthie and Eric Griffin are providing their share of individual highlights, the role-playing remainder of this roster simply isn’t doing enough.

7. Stetson (6-13, 4-4)

Next week: 1/22 at Campbell, 1/25 vs. Florida Gulf Coast

Next on the agenda for the freshman-laden Hatters: Learning how to focus from game-to-game. Coach Derek Waugh rebuked them for lacking that ability when they followed a January 14 win with Mercer with a January 16 loss to Kennesaw State, meaning they still haven’t won consecutive games yet. It’s a pretty sure bet Waugh was even more disgusted when they somehow concocted a loss at 3-17 Savannah State Tuesday night. One good sign: Center Steve Forbes ripped down 13 boards in just 26 minutes against Kennesaw State.

8. Mercer (6-13, 3-5)

Next week: 1/22 vs. North Florida, 1/25 at Kennesaw State

The week‘s most improbable win might belong to the Bears, which followed up the season‘s ugliest win — a 50-47 stink bomb at Florida Gulf Coast — with a 70-68 upset Thursday night over Jacksonville. Defense was the reason as Mercer held the offensively-challenged Dolphins to 25 points in the second half and overtime. If nothing else, this should give the Bears a better chance to at least make the conference tournament in March — on their home floor.

9. Kennesaw State: (5-13, 3-5)

Next week: 1/22 vs. Jacksonville, 1/25 vs. Mercer

Just when you thought it might be time to get excited about the Owls again after they swept their road trip to Florida Gulf Coast and Stetson, they come home and lose by 15 to North Florida. So much for the dramatic layup Spencer Dixon hit at the end against Stetson. While individuals keep logging decent stats — such as Kelvin McConnell moving into second on the school’s all time three-pointers — the team as a whole still isn’t doing enough little things consistently to make any kind of move up the standings.

10. Florida Gulf Coast: (4-13, 1-7)

Next week: 1/25 at Stetson

Freshman Christophe Varidel has been quite a revelation in the last five games, averaging 14.8 ppg and more than ably filling in for senior Reed Baker, who may have played his last game for reasons no one is disclosing. Baker hasn’t played since scoring just five points in 15 minutes of a loss at ETSU January 8. Coach Dave Balza described it as an “internal team matter.” If Baker doesn’t return, he’ll finish his Eagle career 51 points shy of becoming the program’s third 1,000-point scorer.

11. USC Upstate: (2-15, 1-6)

Next Week: 1/21 vs. Belmont, 1/23 vs. Lipscomb, 1/25 at East Tennessee State

Condolences go out to coach Eddie Payne, who missed a Jan. 15 loss at North Florida due to the death of his father-in-law. Assistant coach Kyle Perry presided over that defeat, the team‘s ninth in a row. The Spartans continue to struggle enough offensively to lose close games, although a close game against Belmont Friday night would be a major upset. Upstate still hasn‘t rescheduled its Jan. 10 snowout with Florida Gulf Coast; there‘s a chance it might not take place until the week of the A-Sun Tournament. Neither team is eligible for it due to reclassification, so it‘s not like the applecart would be upset either way.

Playing the Percentages

Every week, we‘ll take a look at an intriguing stat around the conference and decide fluke or trend. This week, we‘ll zero in on the impressive play of Mercer’s Brian Mills, a bit player for most of his career who‘s scored in double figures 10 of the last 11 games, capping it with 24 points in Thursday night‘s upset of Jacksonville.
The verdict is trend. Mills is the top inside threat in this offense and will continue to get touches, and can also create points off missed shots with his relentless work on the glass. If there were a Most Improved Player award in this league, he might be it.

A Look Ahead

With the pecking order set, three of the top four teams converge on Johnson City this weekend for games which could determine a lot.

  • Lipscomb tries to beat someone good in the conference when it plays at ETSU Friday night. The teams annually produce some of the most dramatic finishes, including last-shot wins last year for the road teams as they split the season series.
  • Following its tuneup game at USC Upstate Friday night, Belmont takes the short bus trip up I-26 to Johnson City for a Sunday showdown. The Buccaneers matched up badly against the Bruins last year while being swept, but Smith corrects some of those issues with his versatility.
  • Friday night‘s game with Lipscomb starts a five-game homestand for ETSU, which won‘t have to see another plane or bus again until it leaves Feb. 3 for its Florida Gulf Coast-Stetson swing.
  • Lipscomb will try to exact revenge on Belmont Tuesday night when the Bruins hit Allen Arena. Weird things happen in rivalry games like this one, but it’d have to be really weird for the Bisons to make up 36 points.
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Checking in on… the Atlantic Sun

Posted by Brian Goodman on December 10th, 2010

Bucky Dent is the RTC correspondent for the Atlantic Sun Conference. 

A Look Back

  • The Mercurial Bucs: East Tennessee State notched an impressive win last Wednesday at Dayton, which had a 40-game winning streak at UD Arena against non-conference foes. So with all that momentum behind them, the Buccaneers naturally went down to USC Upstate and face-planted, losing 60-59 in a game which saw them hit nine of their first 40 shots and blow no less than a dozen layups. That loss carried over to a 79-59 blowout defeat at College of Charleston, dropping them to 3-4 as they enter a very tough part of an eight-game road trip (at Mississippi State, at Ole Miss, three games in Cancun). While it‘s a long season, ETSU might regret that inexplicable loss at Upstate if it costs it a better seed come conference tournament time.
  • The Spartan Life: Remember what we said two weeks ago about USC Upstate struggling to win a game? Well, the Spartans took that theory and pitched it right out the door of the Hodge Center with a double overtime win over UNC Asheville and the aforementioned upset of ETSU. Upstate hadn‘t beaten the Bucs in six prior tries, but got a great game from Torrey Craig. He scored 18 points and grabbed 15 rebounds, but his best play was grabbing a loose ball along the baseline and turning a broken play into Chalmers Rogers’ game-winning layup with 3.6 seconds left. Craig already looks like a go-to guy for a program which hasn’t had one of those for a while.
  • Player of the Week: Ayron Hardy, Jacksonville – The do-it-all 6‘5 senior continues to stuff the stat sheet the way dead Chicagoans used to stuff the ballot box back in the day. Hardy spearheaded the Dolphins’ home sweep of A-Sun foes Stetson and Florida Gulf Coast by averaging 11 points, 10 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 2 steals and 1.5 blocks per game. Just missing the gold medal were Craig and North Florida’s Jerron Granberry. Craig’s 15 rebounds against ETSU were the third-most by a freshman in the country this year, while Granberry scored 20 points on just eight shot attempts, hitting 6-6 on three-pointers, in a Cancun victory over Prairie View A&M.

Power Rankings

1. Belmont (6-2, 1-0)
Next Week: 12/16 vs. Kennesaw State
The Bruins keep on trucking with superior depth and defense. They‘ve forced at least 16 turnovers in each of their first eight games this season, including 27 from unbeaten Tennessee. Belmont’s only losses are to SEC East powers Tennessee and Vanderbilt, and neither one exactly ran and hid. In fact, the Bruins will get another crack at the Volunteers December 23 in Knoxville. Guard Jordan Campbell, who struggled badly from deep for the season’s first seven games, helped Belmont pull out an overtime win over Middle Tennessee State by canning eight threes. If the A-Sun were a horserace, Belmont would be a 2-to-1 favorite at this point.

2. Jacksonville (6-1, 2-0)
Next Week: 12/12 at Winthrop, 12/15 at Saint Louis
One has to love how the Dolphins are playing defense. In four of their six wins, they’ve held the opposition to 60 points or less, doing it with perhaps the conference’s smallest lineup. They pressure the ball and force the opposition into either turnovers or quick shots, then finish the possession by getting a rebound nearly 70 percent of the time. While there will be a couple of difficult non-conference tests prior to January, JU looks like a good bet for a 20-win season, barring injury or a sudden decrease in defensive efficiency

3. Lipscomb (5-2, 1-0)
Next week: 12/11 at Tennessee Tech
The best news out of a three-game winning streak is that the Bisons did it mostly with defense. The opposition’s field goal percentage has dropped to 43.7, which could give this team a serious chance to win a conference title with all the firepower it has on board. Adnan Hodzic is now averaging a double-double (20.3 points, 10.3 rebounds) and Josh Slater is starting to hit his shots, upping his shooting percentage to a more palatable 46.2. Jordan Burgason is a concern, though, as the normally deadeye 3-point shooter is down to 32.5 percent from the arc and has lost his spot in the starting lineup.

4. East Tennessee State (3-4, 0-1)
Next Week: 12/11 at Mississippi State
Losing games isn‘t coach Murry Bartow‘s biggest worry. It’s that an offense which looked a little more slump-proof going into the season suddenly can’t get out of the 50’s on a consistent basis. The problem is that the team’s jump-shooters aren’t consistently making shots or being aggressive enough to earn free throw opportunities. In the loss at College of Charleston, the Buccaneers garnered just four foul shots, which has nothing to do with officials and everything to do with a lack of aggression. Junior forward Isiah Brown is playing the best ball on a nightly basis, but got into it with Bartow early in the second half at Charleston and was benched for the game’s remainder. With five more games left in its eight-game road trip, ETSU doesn’t need any more issues in addition to those it already has

5. Campbell: (4-3)
Next Week: 12/10 vs. Western Carolina, 12/16 at USC Upstate
Lorne Merthie is becoming more of a go-to player with Jonathan Rodriguez having graduated after what seemed like a ten-year career. Merthie is averaging a team-high 14.1 points per game and canning 52 percent from the three-point line. The Camels are shooting nearly 50 percent from the floor, although their schedule hasn’t exactly been the toughest. They are awaiting the return of forward Eric Griffin (12.2 PPG, 6.0 RPG), who’s missed the last two games with an ankle injury

6. North Florida: (4-4, 1-1)
Next Week: 12/11 at Purdue, 12/14 at Texas
Back to the death march for the Ospreys, who missed a good chance to improve to 2-0 in the conference by losing for the second straight year at home to Stetson. Four of their next five games are of the “paycheck” variety against Purdue, Texas, Maryland and Kansas State. To have any chance of surviving that stretch, they’ll have to cut down on turnovers, as they’re averaging 18.5 per game. First-shot defense remains solid (41.9 percent from the field, 32.7 percent on 3s) but UNF is allowing 16 offensive rebounds per game, which helps the opposition score 74 points per game

7. Kennesaw State (2-5)
Next week: 12/11 at SIU Edwardsville, 12/16 at Belmont
With 15 days to rest, take final exams and work on weaknesses exposed during the first seven games, the Owls are ready for the season‘s bulk to begin. What they must do is find more scoring threats besides Markeith Cummings and Spencer Dixon, as well as improve first-shot defense (46.6 percent from the field, 40.5 percent on threes) and rebounding (minus 3.9 per game). If KSU can do a few of those things, it will be a tough out for any A-Sun team

8. Stetson (3-4, 1-1)
Next week: 12/12 at Miami (Fla.), 12/15 at Florida State
After the horror of a home loss against D-II foe Palm Beach Atlantic, the Hatters didn‘t sulk, winning two of their next three, including a conference road victory over North Florida. Freshman Aaron Graham can flat-out shoot the rock, indicated by his 14-25 numbers from three-point range. He looks like Larry Bird in comparison to the rest of this crowd, which is just 18-88 from beyond the arc. But Stetson is making improvements in first-shot defense (44.2 percent from the floor) and is outrebounding the opposition. When it hits more free throws (60.7 percent) and cuts its 17.1 turnovers per game down to 15 or fewer, the win total will go up

9. USC Upstate: (2-6, 1-0)
Next week: 12/11 at N.C. State, 12/16 vs. Campbell
As we suggested would happen two weeks ago, senior guard Josh Chavis began finding the range from the three-point line. In wins over UNC Asheville and East Tennessee State, Chavis hit 6-of-19, pushing his season percentage over the Mendoza line at 22.4 percent. The Spartans’ stunner over ETSU not only gives them a boost of confidence they badly needed, it fired a warning shot for conference opponents who may have circled Upstate road trips as a win. While winning on the road may be next to impossible for this young, undersized squad, take them lightly at your risk when traveling to Spartanburg

10. Florida Gulf Coast: (2-5, 0-2)
Next week: 12/15 at Ohio State
The good news is that Ole Miss transfer Kevin Cantinol is eligible for the trip to the second-ranked Buckeyes, giving the Eagles a much-needed 6‘9, 250-pound slab of beef inside. The bad news is Cantinol might not make much difference for this team on either side of the floor. Despite the efforts of Anthony Banks (15.4 PPG, 7.4 RPG) and Reed Baker (17.7 PPG), FGCU is really this bad. Good thing that coach Dave Balza won a contract extension prior to the season because there might not be many wins left for the Eagles this year

11. Mercer: (2-7, 0-2)
Next Week: Dec. 10 vs. Navy
The good news for the Bears is this is their only game in a 19-day period. The bad news is they still have 20 more games to play this year, perhaps more if they can qualify for the A-Sun tourney on their home court. That will be tough, since this team does nothing well except force turnovers (17.1 per game). It’s clearly a transitional year for this program and it can’t be good for the future that the top three scorers are all seniors

Playing the Percentages
Every week, we’ll look at an intriguing individual or team stat and determine fluke or trend. This week, we zero in on Florida Gulf Coast‘s Anthony Banks, a live body who can crash the offensive glass with the best of them. After grabbing 100 offensive caroms last year, Banks owns 31 in his first seven games this season, placing him atop the conference and in a tie for 8th nationally. We’re calling trend here. Banks is one of those guys with a nose for the ball and the quickness to go get it no matter where it is. If the Eagles get good in the next three years, you can bet the Banks this sophomore will have had a lot to do with it.

A Look Ahead

  • With most teams either approaching or in the middle of exam periods, schedules are fairly light. Belmont tries for its second A-Sun win on the 16th when it welcomes Kennesaw State to Nashville.
  • USC Upstate tries to keep the upset train on the tracks when it welcomes Campbell to the tiny Hodge Center Dec. 16 for the Camels‘ conference opener.
  • North Florida will try to make the conference look respectable to Power Six audiences when it visits Top 25 inhabitants Purdue and Texas in a four-day span.
  • Lipscomb’s recent improvement on defense will be tested Saturday night with a trip to Tennessee Tech, which loves to push the tempo.
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Checking in on… the Atlantic Sun

Posted by Brian Goodman on November 27th, 2010

Bucky Dent is the RTC correspondent for the Atlantic Sun Conference.  [ed note: this post was written prior to the Nov. 26-28 games]

A Look Back

  • Tommy Hubbard Injured: East Tennessee State forward Tommy Hubbard is battling knee problems which have kept him out of two games and hampered him in the only game he played, a Nov. 15 loss at Murray State. While the Buccaneers have enough depth to still field a solid lineup, they don’t want to think about life without Hubbard, their best defensive player and top scorer last year when they won the A-Sun tourney as a five seed. This puts more pressure on Mike Smith, Micah Williams and Justin Tubbs to score the ball without Hubbard‘s presence.
  • TV league Upsets: In the first two weeks of the season, A-Sun teams have already scored three attention-grabbing upsets over Power Six foes. Stetson outran and outscored Wake Forest 89-79 Nov. 12, followed by Kennesaw State’s 80-63 whacking of Georgia Tech Nov. 15 (think the Yellow Jackets will ever play in Kennesaw again?). Campbell followed with a 61-54 win at Auburn Nov. 20. One thing all three A-Sun teams have in common: they also lost their next game after those big victories.
  • Player of the Week: Lorne Merthie, Campbell - A streaky shooter, Merthie was on during the Camels’ 2-1 showing in a tournament at Auburn, averaging 15.7 points per game. Merthie also picked up four steals against the Tigers, while tallying 22 points and drilling 4-4 three-pointers in a narrow loss to Samford. Just missing the gold medal were Spencer Dixon and Ridge Graham. Dixon‘s 27-point outburst spearheaded Kennesaw State‘s epic drilling of Georgia Tech, while the ultra-athletic Graham went for a 21-point, 12-rebound double-double in the Hatters‘ victory at Wake Forest.

Power Rankings

1. Belmont (3-1)
Next Week: 11/29 at Tennessee State, 12/2 vs. Mercer

This has a chance to be the best team of coach Rick Byrd‘s 25 seasons in Nashville. The Bruins have excellent length and play fundamentally sound defense, forcing teams to take one well-contested shot, then finish the possession with a rebound. The offense is averaging 85.5 ppg in the first four games behind sophomore guard Ian Clark, who would have Dick Vitale screaming his name if he played in a bigger league. Inside, Belmont can count on Mick Hedgepeth and Scott Saunders, who are very productive as long as they can stay out of foul trouble, which isn‘t a given. Point guard Drew Hanlen provides an outrageous 22-to-1 assist-turnover ratio and is a knockdown shooter from the three-point line. Eleven different players are averaging double-figure minutes, making this the league’s deepest and best team as we gird for conference openers next week.

2. East Tennessee State (1-2)
Next Week: 11/27 vs. Milligan, 12/1 at Dayton

When rating teams in this conference, one has to keep the big picture in mind. While the Buccaneers’ record isn’t impressive, consider their losses are at Kentucky and Murray State. Not too many teams anywhere would avoid a sweep in Lexington or Murray. Coach Murry Bartow just wants to weather the December storm (i.e. eight straight road games) and come out of it with his team healthy. The key will be getting Tommy Hubbard back from his knee woes. Mike Smith appears to be 100% after last year‘s injury nightmare, torching Tennessee Tech for an easy 26 points in a 73-60 win Nov. 20. ETSU remains one of the league‘s top defensive teams, doing it with a variety of zones devised by assistant coach Scott Wagers, who basically runs the defense. If it can get reasonable point guard play and get Hubbard healthy, it will challenge for a third straight NCAA Tourney bid.

3. Lipscomb (2-2)
Next week: 11/27 at UT-Martin

Mixed returns so far for the Bisons, which were competitive in losses at major powers North Carolina and Baylor but still aren’t playing good enough defense, allowing opponents to shoot 46.9 percent from the floor and average 82.8 points per game. The good news is Lipscomb’s offense isn’t running at full efficiency yet but is still scoring 83.2 points per game. The 1-2 senior punch of Adnan Hodzic and Josh Slater is performing as one would expect, combining to score nearly 38 PPG. Hodzic has become a better passer out of double-teams early this year and is also hitting 80 percent at the foul line, his career best. Freshman guard Robert Boyd is providing a spark off the bench, averaging 10.5 points and 2.5 steals per game.

4. Jacksonville (3-1)
Next Week: 11/27 at Auburn, 12/2 vs. Stetson

Last year at this time, the Dolphins had overscheduled and were getting blown out on a regular basis, although they bounced back to tie for the regular season title and win a first round NIT game at Arizona State. This year, with a less experienced team and a more reasonable schedule, they‘ve started 3-1. The star player is definitely Ayron Hardy, who, if you were playing A-Sun fantasy basketball (and if you are, you’ve got too much time on your hands), would be your No. 1 overall pick. All he’s done in four games is average 14.3 points, 6.5 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 3.8 steals and 1.8 blocked shots. Besides Hardy’s all-around excellence, Jacksonville is getting much-improved production from sophomore forward Glenn Powell, who’s averaging 12.8 points and hitting 64.5 percent from the field. The defense is allowing just 66.8 ppg and forcing nearly 21 turnovers per game. Don’t sleep on these guys in this league.

5. North Florida: (3-3)
Next Week: 12/2 vs. Florida Gulf Coast

It is a good sign for this program that it‘s 3-3 after a brutal six-game road trip to start the year. Tossing out blowout losses against top-flight programs in Florida State, Pittsburgh and Missouri isn‘t easy, but the Ospreys were impressive on the defensive end in a 59-52 win Nov. 24 against MEAC kingpin Morgan State in Cancun. Sophomore forward Andres Diaz has become more of a scoring threat inside at 11.8 points per game, although he remains a brutal foul shooter at 47.8%. Tennessee State transfer Parker Smith has given this offense-starved squad scoring punch off the bench (11.5 ppg, 38.1 percent 3-pointers). Second-year coach Matt Driscoll, who helped Scott Drew rebuild the Baylor program, has quietly built a nice foundation in his own program.

6. Campbell: (2-3)
Next Week: 11/27 vs. Longwood, 11/29 vs. Johnson C. Smith

With a bunch of new players trying to find roles alongside a veteran backcourt, it might be until January before we know who the Camels are. Guards Lorne Merthie and Junard Hartley supply perimeter scoring punch and excellent defense, in that order. Junior college transfer Eric Griffin is the team‘s leading scorer and rebounded through five games, although he‘s making less than 43% of his shots. The roster‘s remainder is a bunch of decent role players who rarely go above or beyond what they can do. Tune in about six weeks from now and you‘ll know about the Camels.

7. Kennesaw State (2-4)
Next week: 11/26 at Creighton

When their shots are dropping, the Owls can beat anyone, like the ACC‘s Georgia Tech. When they aren’t, they can lose to anyone, like Alabama State, and lose by 40 at mediocre Iowa State. If nothing else, the current four-game losing streak is a reminder that coach Tony Ingle still has a bunch of sophomores who have growing to do at this level. The biggest things Kennesaw State must fix are defense and rebounding. It’s allowing opponents to hit nearly 46 percent from the floor, including 41.2% on 3-pointers, and is being outboarded by nearly four per game. Improvement in those areas might mean not being so shot-dependant.

8. Stetson (1-2)
Next week: 11/26 vs. Palm Beach Atlantic, 11/30 vs. Savannah State, 12/2 at Jacksonville

The win over Wake Forest resonated throughout the conference, but losses to Bethune-Cookman and Central Florida were a reminder that rebuilding remains for the Hatters. With sophomore forward Ridge Graham providing a double-double threat on a nightly basis, this team has a go-to option on the offensive end. Two other sophomores —  Tyshawn Patterson and Joel Naburgs — are also scoring in double figures. The down side is the team’s defense, which is allowing opponents to shoot 45% from the field and score nearly 81 points per game. But there is a future for Stetson, as this league will find out a year or two from now.

9. Mercer: (1-3)
Next week: 11/26 vs. Western Carolina (Williamsburg, Va.), 11/27 at William & Mary, 11/28 vs. Gardner-Webb (Williamsburg, Va.), 12/2 at Belmont

Where have you gone, James Florence, Daniel Emerson and E.J. Kusnyer? Without three players which combined for more than 44 points per game last year, the Bears are off to a sub-.500 start which doesn’t look like it will get a lot better. There are a couple of decent weapons in Brandon Moore and Jeff Smith, who are averaging a combined 28.5 ppg. But as a whole, Mercer doesn’t shoot well, especially from three-point range (21-of-90), and isn’t playing well enough on the defensive end (45 percent shooting, 71.2 ppg allowed). The Bears will have to fight just to make the conference tournament on their home floor.

10. Florida Gulf Coast: (2-2)
Next week: 11/27 vs. Miami (Fla.), 12/2 at North Florida

The record looks OK, but the two losses — 88-60 at Indiana and 90-47 at Arkansas — reveal that this team is still second-division material in the A-Sun. Good news is that guard Reed Baker has found his missing shot of a year ago, as he‘s averaging 19.5 ppg and went for 33 in a win at Grambling. But this is still a below-average team offensively (39.6 percent from the floor, 10-of-56 on 3s) and a poor team on defense (49.4 opponents’ field goal percentage, 81.5 ppg). While Ole Miss transfer Kevin Cantinol will help this team get tougher inside when he becomes eligible next month, he probably won’t make the difference between mediocrity and respectability.

11. USC Upstate: (0-6)
Next Week: Nov. 29 vs. UNC Asheville

There have been bright spots, such as the development of freshman forward Torrey Craig, as well as a nine-block shot performance from freshman Babatunde Olumyiwa in a Nov. 23 loss at South Carolina. But the Spartans are easily the conference‘s worst team, one which won‘t be favored in any game it plays this year. Not to pile on too much, but they might be the worst offensive team in America as they are scoring just 51.3 ppg and shooting just 31 percent from the field. Like a minor league baseball team, Upstate should concentrate more on player development and less on the record, although it would love to get that zero out of the win column sometime.

Playing the Percentages

Every week, we’ll look at an intriguing individual or team stat and determine fluke or trend. This week, it’s the three-point accuracy of USC Upstate guard Josh Chavis. A 37.9 percent shooter last year, when he canned ten threes in a game against Florida Gulf Coast, Chavis is colder than Siberia. The 5’9 senior is sinking just 5-of-30 from the arc and is a hideous 5-of-40 overall. We’re saying fluke for now because his career numbers aren’t close to being this bad. Keep on shooting, kid.

A Look Ahead

  • Conference play opens up on a limited basis next week. Belmont starts A-Sun play at home with struggling Mercer, which doesn‘t look like a fair fight. Jacksonville welcomes Stetson to town for each team‘s first A-Sun game. Can the Hatters keep their turnovers down against the very athletic Dolphins?
  • North Florida finally plays its home opener after six straight away from Jacksonville as it takes on A-Sun rival Florida Gulf Coast.
  • East Tennessee State begins a brutal eight-game road trip against a Dayton team which needs every win it can get as it tries to reach the NCAA Tournament. This would be a nice “statement“ game for the Buccaneers.
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