Bucky Dent is the RTC correspondent for the Atlantic Sun Conference.
A Look Back
- Bruins Beaten: Just when Ken Pomeroy‘s metrics rated Belmont with a 53 percent chance of running through the Atlantic Sun Conference with a 20-0 record, the Bruins were beaten January 25 at Lipscomb. And not just any loss, either. A come-from-way-ahead loss in which they led by 18 in the first half before the Bison reeled them in down the stretch and won 73-64. Not that it seems to have bothered the Bruins too much, however, as they’ve won three straight, including a 76-70 decision at Jacksonville Thursday night in their last difficult road assignment of the regular season.
- Bucs Draw Closer: Unable to beat Belmont head-to-head last month, East Tennessee State stayed within striking distance by winning the last three games of its season-long five-game homestand. It did so without injured senior Justin Tubbs, cutting its rotation down to eight players and no reserve guards. Then again, it had Mike Smith and Micah Williams and that was more than enough, especially against the league‘s Murdered Row — USC Upstate, Kennesaw State and Mercer. Smith and Williams combined to average more than 46 points per game in those three victories.
- Player of the Week: Mike Smith, East Tennessee State: Smith is making this little ceremony his private show, winning the award for the second time in a month and just missing out on it the third time to Belmont‘s Ian Clark. All Smith did was score 25.7 points per game, grab 7.0 rebounds and notch career highs in points during consecutive wins over Kennesaw State and Mercer. Just missing the gold medal was Florida Gulf Coast freshman Christophe Varidel, who bombed in a career-high 29 points during an epic triple-OT win at Stetson (more on that later) and averaged 20.7 ppg last week, and Micah Williams, who was good for 22 ppg in three victories.
1. Belmont (21-4, 13-1)
Next Week: 2/5 at North Florida
Here‘s to Rick Byrd, the classy coach of the Bruins who reached the 600-win mark January 30 at home against Stetson. The son of legendary Knoxville sportswriter Ben Byrd, Rick has built a program which will be around for the long run. Ten of the 11 guys who play regularly for this team will be back next year. Belmont’s bench is so good and deep that it leads the nation in assists per game, steals per game and three-pointers per game. Most teams in this league go to the bench and just hope to survive. The Bruins go to the bench and expect to increase the lead — and often do.
2. East Tennessee State (16-8, 11-2)
Next Week: 2/4 at Florida Gulf Coast, 2/6 at Stetson
No Super Bowl parties for the Buccaneers, unless they hold one on the trip back home from DeLand, Fla., where they play Stetson in a game that will end about an hour and a half before the Packers and Steelers kick off SB XLV. But they are looking like the one team in this league which could keep Belmont from hosting a Selection Sunday party next month — especially the way Smith is playing. The senior is making a good case for A-Sun Player of the Year, doing whatever it takes to win games. As Mercer coach Bob Hoffman said after watching Smith torch the Bears for 28 points on 14 shot attempts Monday night, “Un-stinking-believable.”
3. Jacksonville (14-7, 8-4)
Next week: 2/5 vs. Lipscomb, 2/8 vs. North Florida
The Dolphins pulled out all the stops for Belmont‘s visit Thursday night, throwing open the gates to Veterans Memorial Arena for their yearly free admission night courtesy of a seafood restaurant. The season’s largest crowd — 5,240 — couldn’t quite do enough to keep Jacksonville from confirming again that it’s just a notch below the Bruins and ETSU in the A-Sun pecking order this year. Foul shooting again hurt the Dolphins as they were 14-23, which looks positively Rick Barry-esque compared to the January 26 numbers at North Florida — 11-26. Talk about your fishy smells.
4. Lipscomb (15-9, 9-5)
Next Week: 2/5 at Jacksonville, 2/10 at Campbell
So much for the Bisons having finally figured things out. After beating Belmont and then scoring a pair of easy wins, they laid a mutant of an egg at North Florida, trailing 35-19 at halftime and losing 72-62 to cement their reputation as the league’s most mercurial side. Adnan Hodzic had what may be the worst game of his career, going 1-8 from the floor and scoring just two points in 24 minutes. Lipscomb appears headed for a fourth place finish, which could mean a conference tournament semifinal against crosstown rival Belmont.
5. North Florida: (9-14, 6-6)
Next Week: 2/5 vs. Belmont, 2/8 at Jacksonville
While Lipscomb is harder to figure out than calculus, the Ospreys are easier to read than Ryan Leaf‘s eyes on 3rd-and-11. On the nights they shoot the ball well and at least battle to a stalemate on the boards, they win, like Thursday night against Lipscomb. The overall record doesn’t suggest it but they have taken another step forward in coach Matthew Driscoll’s second year. On the nights when Parker Smith is hitting from three-point range and they‘re getting a little inside scoring, this team can beat anyone in the league besides Belmont and ETSU.
6. Campbell: (11-11, 5-7)
Next Week: 2/5 at Mercer, 2/7 at Kennesaw State, 2/10 vs. Lipscomb
Eric Griffin has become this team‘s top offensive option these days, averaging 17 points over his last six games and making better than 63 percent of his field goal attempts. Griffin was slowed by injuries early in the season but is having the impact coach Robbie Laing hoped he would. On the other hand, junior guard Lorne Merthie couldn‘t hit water if he fell out of a boat, making one bucket in a two-game trip to North Florida and Jacksonville. It’s that type of inconsistency which keeps this team mired in the conference’s middle and makes it unlikely they can do much of anything in the A-Sun tourney.
7. Mercer (8-15, 5-7)
Next week: 2/5 vs. Campbell, 2/10 vs. Stetson
One day, someone needs to match the Bears against Virginia Tech and get it on TV so the nation could see which coach has the most creative facial expressions — Bob Hoffman or Seth Greenberg. Watching Hoffman Face rule the sidelines on a recent Monday night at ETSU made for two hours of great theater. Watching Hoffman’s team persevere in the face of serious adversity — senior forward Brandon Moore and senior guard Jeff Smith have suffered year-ending knee injuries in an 11-day span — and still play hard is a tribute to his ability to get a team to believe no matter how steep the odds.
8. Florida Gulf Coast (5-15, 2-9)
Next week: 2/4 vs. East Tennessee State, 2/6 vs. USC Upstate, 2/10 at Kennesaw State
On the same night that Lipscomb ended Belmont‘s hopes for a 20-0 run through the conference, the Eagles and Stetson played one of the season‘s most remarkable games. FGCU won 111-103 in triple overtime as it marched to the foul line 60 times, fouling out five Hatters in the process, and survived buzzer-beating threes to end regulation and the first OT. Forward Anthony Banks took just nine shots from the field but still scored 24 points, going 14-24 at the foul line. Varidel, who’s more than filled in adequately for the departed Reed Baker, is averaging 16.9 points over his last eight games.
9. Stetson: (6-17, 4-8)
Next week: 2/4 vs. USC Upstate, 2/6 vs. East Tennessee State, 2/10 at Mercer
Young teams will have rough patches, but coach Derek Waugh is probably agonizing pretty hard about this one. The Hatters have lost six straight, including that crazy triple OT contest against FGCU in which they were eight seconds from a double OT win before Varidel drilled a 3-pointer. Stetson’s first-shot defense has waned lately as opponents are back to 46 percent from the field. It will have to start paying better attention to the little things or it might sit out the conference tournament for a second straight year.
10. Kennesaw State: (5-17, 3-9)
Next week: 2/7 vs. Campbell, 2/10 vs. Florida Gulf Coast
The Owls were embarrassing in a 93-62 loss at ETSU Jan. 29, regularly refusing to stop the ball in transition, help out a beaten teammate or close out on open jump-shooters. It‘s hard to believe this was a team which not only started with high expectations, but also hammered Georgia Tech back in mid-November. Right now, if the conference tournament were beginning, this team would miss it. With talented players such as Markeith Cummings, Spencer Dixon and LaDaris Green around, that just doesn‘t add up.
11. USC Upstate: (3-19, 2-10)
Next Week: 2/4 at Stetson, 2/6 at Florida Gulf Coast
The Spartans finally ended their 13-game losing streak Monday night with a 12-2 run in the last four minutes that beat Kennesaw State. Freshman forward Torrey Craig’s 27 points against Kennesaw marked his 13th straight game in double figures. He’s just about the only consistent source of offense for this team, which continues to shoot less than 40 percent from the field and score less than 60 points per game. Upstate announced that its January 10 snow-out with Florida Gulf Coast — as we expected — would be rescheduled for February 28. With neither team eligible for the conference tournament, that was an easy call.
Playing the Percentages
Every week, we‘ll take a look at an intriguing stat around the conference and decide between fluke or trend. This week, we eyeball the up-and-down work of ETSU‘s Isiah Brown, who in three straight games:
- Didn‘t take a shot in 32 minutes against USC Upstate and scored just one point, but had 10 rebounds.
- Went for 17 points and 12 boards against Kennesaw State.
- Scored just four points in 18 minutes against Mercer before fouling out on a technical less than three minutes into the second half.
The word is trend. Brown has been inconsistent throughout his career and this three-game set is emblematic of it.
A Look Ahead
- While Belmont and ETSU try to maintain their position, others try to improve their seeding for next month‘s tournament.
- Lipscomb looks for revenge and tries to get back on its feet when it plays Jacksonville Saturday in the Dolphins‘ cozy campus hideout, 1,500-seat Swisher Gym. The winner figures to finish no worse than third in the league and the loser will probably wind up in the same half of the draw with Belmont.
- North Florida tries its luck with Belmont Saturday night and then rematches with Jacksonville Tuesday night. The Ospreys and Dolphins put on one of the worst free-throwing displays ever in their first meeting, combining to miss 29 of 54.
- Mercer tries to pick up the pieces without Brandon Moore when it hosts Campbell Saturday. The good news for the Bears is that they‘re starting a four-game homestand, all against beatable teams, so they should be able to piece together enough wins to clinch a conference tourney berth.
- ETSU tries not to screw up its road trip to central Florida. There‘s no real reason for it to lose against either Florida Gulf Coast or Stetson, but the Bucs tend to mix in a clunker when it least makes sense. So stay tuned Friday night or Super Bowl Sunday just in case.