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The Atlantic Sun was consistently one of the worst conferences in the country this past season, ranking No. 28 in conference RPI and finishing with the second-most non-conference losses. However, it did feature a decent league race, as Belmont won its final 10 games of the season, but still finished only two games ahead of Jacksonville. Four teams finished with at least 11 wins, and two more were 9-7. This could be a wide-open league tournament.
Favorite: Belmont sent a message to the rest of the conference early in the season when it defeated Cincinnati and Alabama on the road. The Bruins were inconsistent, however, until mid-January. As mentioned above, they have won 10 in a row and are hot. Justin Hare has plenty of experience and is one of the best players in the league, while Matthew Dotson is an inside-outside option. Shane Dansby provides balance down low, and Andy Wicke can stroke it from deep. Belmont loves to push the ball, force turnovers and shoot it quickly.
Contenders: Jacksonville went into conference play at just 2-8, but the Dolphins turned it around and are certainly a threat for the title. They have one of the best trios in the conference in all-around stud guard Ben Smith and the dominant inside tandem of Marcus Allen and Lehmon Colbert. Jacksonville loves to attack the basket and the glass for easy points at the foul-line or off offensive rebounds. East Tennessee State finished strong, winning 10 of its last 13 to finish in third. The Buccaneers are led by the inside-outside combo of guard Courtney Pigram, one of the best all-around players in the conference, and forward Kevin Tiggs, an undersized scorer down low. Andrew Reed is another solid player in the frontcourt. The extremely fast-paced Bucs are going to a tough out.
Sleeper: Lipscomb is yet another A-Sun team that finished the season on a hot streak, as the Bisons won seven of their final nine games, with the lone losses at Belmont and ETSU by single-digits. Moreover, Lipscomb is the host for the conference tourney – the Bisons are 9-2 at home this season. Eddie Ard is one of the best players in the conference; he can single-handedly lead Lipscomb to the NCAA Tournament.
Prediction: With so many teams finishing the season strongly, it is going to be a wide-open tournament. Belmont is the hottest of the team, and the Bruins might have the most weapons and experience in the league. On the other hand, Jacksonville has plenty of talent, ETSU is tough to prepare for, and Lipscomb is at home. Throw in Gardner-Webb and Stetson, and the tourney is going to be fun to watch. I’m going with Belmont. The Bruins can play at multiple tempos, and are clearly not afraid to go away from home and win games.
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