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.
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.