Atlantic Sun Conference Tournament
University Center, Macon, GA (Host: Mercer)
Favorite - #1 Belmont
Veteran head coach Rick Byrd (26th season) has by far the deepest and most talented team in the league. Belmont currently ranks second in the nation in points per game at 82.1 and their unselfish style has resulted in six players scoring between 9 and 14 points per game. The offense is extremely diverse executing up-tempo and half court styles with interior, perimeter and off the dribble scoring options. The Bruins depth was on full display this past Saturday as they sat starting junior PG Kerron Johnson (14 ppg) and sophomore SF Blake Jenkins due to minor injuries and still pulled out a 62-61 win right here against tournament #2 seed Mercer. At 22-7 with a 59 RPI and only one Top 50 RPI win (at Middle Tennessee State), it’s imperative for Belmont to win this tournament to gain a return trip to the NCAA Tournament. With their experience (seven upperclassmen in the nine man rotation), diversity (can effectively play two PG’s at the same time) and motivation, they should be the clear cut favorite.
Second Choice - #2 Mercer
Having the home floor certainly helps and despite just losing here to shorthanded Belmont four days ago, they can draw from the fact that they had a chance to win at the buzzer and only lost by four (82-78) at Belmont earlier this season. They are a more moderate tempo, defensive minded team than Belmont (66.5 possessions per game, allow 39.1% FG shooting) but they go just as deep with nine players averaging at least 11 minutes of playing time. They are a less experienced group with only four upperclassmen in the rotation but they are very well balanced from a perimeter/interior standpoint. The three teams they will or could face in the lower half of their bracket didn’t cause the much trouble as they won by 9, 14 and 22 points so their path to the final appears clean but they do enter on a bit of a skid losing three of their last four.
Other Contenders - #3 South Carolina Upstate
With the Atlantic Sun Player of the Year sophomore Torrey Craig (also was last season’s Freshman of the Year), Freshman of the Year Ty Greene and HC of the Year Eddie Payne, SC Upstate has some ingredients to make noise in this tournament. SF Craig leads the team in scoring 17.1 ppg, three pointers made with 78 and rebounding 7.9 rpg. Combo guard Greene is second in scoring with 11.2 ppg and is a tremendous shooter nailing 40.8% from three point range. The Spartans are very dependent upon their top three scorers (6’8” 246 lb freshman PF Riccardo Glenn 9.8 ppg ranks third) so the road venue and tournament format may not be coducive to going all the way. Still, this up-tempo squad (70 possessions per game) comes in red hot going 10-2 in their last 12 games and one of only two A-Sun teams to have defeated Belmont.
Jacksonville vs. Belmont (11:30 PT, ESPN 3) – I actually saw this contest courtside at Belmont a month ago and the 85-71 final was mostly achieved in the final six minutes. The Dolphins pushed the pace from the outset and their half-court sets featured a lot of 4-high with some backdoors and some pick and roll. The Dolphins half court gave Belmont’s man-to-man extreme trouble for most of the game until the defense finally made some key stops. Offensively, the Bruins ran fast break whenever available and when it wasn’t there they pounded the ball inside relentlessly against the much smaller Jacksonville team. That continual paint production forced JU to sag down and then in the second half, Belmont’s arsenal of shooters along with blow-by PG Johnson took over. Jacksonville head coach Cliff Warren coached the heck out of his team and I’d expect a valiant effort here but again to no avail as Belmont is the far better all-around team. Power ratings show Belmont -19.5.
Lipscomb @ Mercer (5:30 PT, ESPN 3) – It took 56.7% second half shooting and 51.8% overall for Lipscomb to get by Kennesaw State 74-71 last Saturday. That’s significant because the strong shooting performance was needed to defeat lowly Kennesaw (0-18 in conference play this season) by three and gain only the second win for Lipscomb since dismissing senior Jordan Burgason who was the nation’s leading 3 point shooter at 52.4%. Losing their centerpiece (led the team in minutes played along with every shooting and scoring category) back on February 11th led to a 2-4 record and this would seem to be a tough task. On the bright side, the Bisons did show well in this arena last Thursday night losing only by 9, 63-54 but they shot just 33% and are a combined 44-123 35.8% versus Mercer this season. On the other hand, the host Bears went 41-80 51.3% on their two point field goals in the pair of games which featured entirely different tempos. Expect Mercer to dictate the much more controlled pace they used on this floor last week and their incredibly stingy three point defense (29.2% allowed in A-Sun play) as strong fundamental advantages. Home court figures to help too. If the price is right, could be a play on Mercer.