Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Atlantic Sun Conference Tournament Preview

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One of the best conference races in the country took place in the Atlantic Sun, and it won’t be settled until the league tournament this week in Macon, Ga. Four teams ended up tying for first place at 14-6, including Lipscomb, Campbell, Belmont and Jacksonville, while East Tennessee State finished one game back at 13-7. Lipscomb won the tie-breaker and the top seed, with Jacksonville nabbing the second spot, and Belmont and Campbell following them. Only eight teams make the conference tournament, meaning this could be one of the most competitive tourneys in the country.

Favorites and Contenders: With the logjam at the top of the standings, we’ll take a look at each of the five teams in the mix. Lipscomb is led by the conference’s most dominant player, Adnan Hodzic, who averaged 30.5 points and 18.5 rebounds in the final week of the season. Guards Josh Slater and Jordan Burgason are high-volume scorers who can shoot the three effectively. The problem with Lipscomb has been its defense – the Bisons allow far too many open shots. They’ll need to play better at that end of the floor to win the automatic bid. Jacksonville had a chance to win first place outright, but lost at home in the final game of the season to East Tennessee State. The Dolphins force tempo and look to cause turnovers at every opportunity. They are led by guard Ben Smith, one of the conference’s top scorers. The forward tandem of Lehmon Colbert and Ayron Hardy provide balance on the interior. Perennial contender Belmont rebounded from a 4-4 start by winning 10 of its last 12 games to forge a tie for first place. The Bruins love to get up and down the floor, and they are effective at both ends of the court. They do rely heavily on the three-pointer, though. Guard Ian Clark and big man Mick Hedgepeth form a solid inside-outside tandem. Campbell looked like it could win the league outright after winning six in a row, but they fell to Jacksonville in the next-to-last game of the season to fall back to the pack. Despite not being an up-tempo group, they rank No. 1 in the country in defensive steal percentage. The Fighting Camels have one of the league’s most versatile players in forward Jonathan Rodriguez, who can carry them to the automatic bid. East Tennessee State did finish one game back of the aforementioned quartet, but the Buccaneers still have a great shot at winning the title. Their defensive prowess and ability to win away from home will be key in the league tourney. ETSU is led by its solid perimeter trio of Tommy Hubbard, former Alabama transfer Justin Tubbs and Micah Williams.

Sleeper: Sure, after the first five teams, there’s not much room for a sleeper in an eight-team tournament. However, keep an eye on Mercer. This team is battle-tested, playing Providence, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Vanderbilt, Alabama and Charlotte in non-conference play. Furthermore, the Bears love pushing the rock and knocking down threes. James Florence (18.2 ppg) and Daniel Emerson (15.3, 12.0 rpg) are one of the more productive inside-outside tandems in the country. Oh, and the tournament is played on their homecourt.

Prediction: What a wide-open tournament. There is a multitude of teams capable of winning the title, and there is certainly no clear-cut favorite. I think that the difference will be Lipscomb’s Adnan Hodzic. He is the conference’s most dominant player, and with the way he is performing lately, no one is able to stop him. Throw in the perimeter production of Josh Slater and Jordan Burgason, and the Bisons have the balance and offensive output to win the automatic bid. I’m not concerned about their defensive lapses — in this league, offense matters. 

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