Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Atlantic Sun Conference Tournament Preview

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The Atlantic Sun featured one of the more exciting conference races in the country this season, with three teams finishing within one game of each other at the top of the standings. The regular-season title came down to the final day of the season, when Jacksonville went into Belmont and beat the Bruins by one, giving Jacksonville the championship and relegating Belmont to a second-place tie with East Tennessee State. Three other teams finished above .500 in league play.

Favorites and Contenders: All three of the top teams in the league struggled down the stretch, with each team losing at least four games in its final ten. Therefore, it’s tough to pick out one clear-cut favorite. Jacksonville had lost four of its previous eight games before winning on the road against Belmont, but had won nine in a row prior to that stretch. The Dolphins are led by guard Ben Smith, who can score and create. They also have one of the best frontlines in the league, in Lehmon Colbert, Marcus Allen and Ayron Hardy, all double-figure scorers. Belmont should have wrapped up the league title, but the Bruins lost two of their final three games. They shoot the ball well and have plenty of experience; remember, this is the team that nearly knocked off Duke in the first-round of last year’s NCAA Tournament. Guard Alex Renfroe is one of the best all-around players in the league, while Andy Wicke can shoot. Matthew Dotson is a very solid inside presence, and Shane Dansby does a little of everything. East Tennessee State had the early lead on the conference, starting 9-1 before going 5-5 in its last ten. The Buccaneers have the best one-two scoring punch in the conference, in forward Kevin Tiggs (21.3 ppg) and guard Courtney Pigram (17.4). Throw in Mike Smith, one of the league’s top scorers and rebounders, and this team has a trio who can compete with anyone.

Sleepers: Outside of the top three, there are still threats to win the auto bid. Lipscomb has won its last eight games, and has also defeated each of the top three teams this season. The Bisons have 6-9 center Adnan Hodzic, one of the most difficult players to defend in the league. Josh Slater is a do-it-all guard in the backcourt. Mercer has wins over Alabama and Auburn this season, as well as a dynamite inside-outside combo in guard James Florence and forward Daniel Emerson, who averages a double-double.

Prediction: With three teams within one game of each other at the top – but each of them struggling to the finish – this is going to be a wide-open tournament. The favorites all have something going for them: ETSU has the most firepower, Belmont the most experience and Jacksonville the best inside-outside balance. However, I’m going with the hottest team in the league, Lipscomb, who also happens to be the host for the conference tournament. The Bisons are balanced and deep, and will ride their current surge to the NCAA Tournament.

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