Good Morning fellow SSFer's, here's my third in a series of previews of the various upcoming NCAA conference tournaments. Expect the Ohio Valley Conference later tonight after I get home from work. Happy Monday, and hoping for a #1 ranking to be announced shortly.
For the previous posts in the series, click the links
Atlantic Sun Conference 2013 Tournament Preview
Location: Macon, Georgia - Mercer University Hawkins Arena
March 6 – 9
2012 Tournament Champion: Belmont
2013 Regular Season Champion: Mercer
Favorites: Mercer (21-10 overall, 14-4 conference), Florida Gulf Coast (21-10, 13-5)
Don’t Rule Out: Stetson (14-15, 11-7)
Darkhorse: Jacksonville (14-17, 9-9)
The Others: USC Upstate (15-16, 9-9), North Florida (8-10, 13-18), East Tennessee State (10-21, 8-10), Lipscomb (12-17, 7-11),
Not Participating: Northern Kentucky* (11-15**, 9-9), Kennesaw State (2-16, 3-27) (only top 8 teams qualify)
* NKU is transitioning from D-II to D-I and will not be eligible for postseason play until 2016-2017
** NKU will play University of San Francisco in a "regular season" game in SF after the WCC tournament ends
First Round Matchups
North Florida vs Florida Gulf Coast
Lipscomb vs Mercer
ETSU vs Stetson
USC Upstate vs Jacksonville
The departure of 2-time defending tournament champion Belmont, for the greener pastures of the Ohio Valley Conference, put the conference of small southern schools up for grabs during the 2012-2013 season. While last season’s runner up Florida Gulf coast looks to try and achieve what they fell short of last season, standing in their way are the Mercer Bears. Not only is Mercer the regular season A-Sun champ and #1 seed, but they are also the host school for the tournament, which could give them the deciding edge to bring home the championship.
The Atlantic Sun is not a powerhouse conference by any means, and it has seen its share of schools departing for other conferences including UCF, Samford, College of Charleston, FIU, and FAU. Since 1998, 8 different schools have captured the tournament title. However, of those 8 schools, only 1 still remains in the conference – East Tennessee State, which won in 2009 and 2010. Prior to 2009, the last time one of the current members won the conference tournament was in 1985, when Mercer took home the title.
The 2012-13 Mercer Bears come in having won 9 of their last 10, with the lone loss coming at Florida Gulf Coast by 3. Prior to that loss, in the first meeting between the Bears and the Eagles, it took overtime but Mercer pulled it out 77-70. Based on these results it is clear that a rematch for the championship would be exciting, and could come down to the final possession or two. Outside of conference play, Mercer picked up nice wins at Florida State and at Alabama, and played respectably in losses at Georgia and at #25 New Mexico. Those wins, while not really mattering for a chance at an at-large bid, give the Bears an edge over FGCU because of the experience of playing big-time teams, and playing them hard.
For Florida Gulf Coast, a chance to dance would mean an opportunity to show that their November 13th 12-point win over Miami was not a fluke, and that they deserve to prove they are among the best. For a month-long stretch of January and into February, the Eagles were on a roll. In that stretch, they won 7 in a row, and looked to be close to bringing in a regular season title. However, this plan was derailed by back-to-back road losses at Lipscomb and Stetson. Now, getting the tournament win is the only way to get into the dance, because despite the win over Miami, the overall quality of resume is lacking, largely due to the weak overall nature of the conference, and losses in other games against Big-time opponents (Duke, St. Johns, VCU, Iowa State). While the experience from these games should help them, like it would Mercer, I give the edge to Mercer.
The Stetson Hatters bring with them one of the best mascot names that nobody has ever heard of. In fact, before writing this article I didn’t know what their name was, and jokingly thought "what if they are the cowboys, or the ‘hats’?". Despite a respectable 11 wins in conference play, Stetson is very much on the outside looking in when it comes to realistic chances of winning the tournament. The Hatters split the season series with FGCU, but went 0-2 vs Mercer. Their non-conference slate saw them face Miami and VCU, like FGCU, but unlike the Eagles, they won neither. Their early-season struggles were compounded by a streak of 7 consecutive losses, ruling out any hope for an at-large bid. While the Hatters might be able to beat FGCU in the semis, I don’t see them being able to win again in the finals vs Mercer, at Mercer’s gym.
Of course the great thing about these tournaments is you never know what can happen, so even the others, like Lipscomb, could be capable of pulling the upset.