(SportsNetwork.com) - The 35th annual Atlantic Sun Conference Tournament tips off on Tuesday, March 4th and runs through Sunday, March 9th, with the higher seeds hosting at their respective campus sites.
A year after winning the conference title and making an improbable run as a No. 15 seed in the NCAA Tournament all the way to the Sweet 16, Florida Gulf Coast followed that up with a split of the regular-season championship in 2013-14, as the Eagles finished in a tie for first place with the Mercer Bears at 14-4 in the conference. Although Mercer (23-8) finished with a greater overall record than FCGU (20-11), the Eagles earned the top seed by going 2-0 against the third-place team USC Upstate, while the Bears split their two games with the Spartans.
USC Upstate finished alone in third place at 11-7 in conference action, while East Tennessee State (No. 4 seed), Lipscomb (No. 5), North Florida (No. 6), Jacksonville (No. 7) and Stetson (No. 8) round out the tournament participants. Meanwhile, Northern Kentucky (9-21 overall, 5-13 A-Sun) was ineligible for the tournament due to its status as a reclassifying Division I program, and Kennesaw State (6-25, 3-15) finished in last place and failed to qualify.
With just eight teams in the single-elimination tournament, there are no byes and everyone begins play in the quarterfinals on Tuesday.
As the top seed, FGCU will host eighth-seeded Stetson in the quarterfinals at Alico Arena in Fort Myers, Florida. FGCU swept Stetson during the two regular season matchups, although the latest was close, as it squeaked out a 71-68 home triumph on Jan. 31. The Eagles faced a stumbling block on Feb. 27 with a 92-71 loss at Lipscomb but bounced back in the regular-season finale by beating NKU (92-72) to clinch a share of the title. They displayed strong play on both ends of the floor this season, shooting 47.3 percent from the field for 72.4 ppg while allowing just 67.5 ppg on 41.8 percent shooting. Bernard Thompson (15.1 ppg), Brett Comer (14.2 ppg) and Chase Fieler (13.8 ppg) are all capable of being the top scoring threat on any given night. Comer adds 5.4 apg, while Fieler hauls in 7.4 rpg. As for the Hatters, they just barely did enough to qualify for the tournament, going a mere 7-23 overall and 5-13 in league play, ending the season on a six-game losing streak. They have the league's worst scoring offense in putting up just 62.0 ppg, with Willie Green (13.6 ppg), Kentwan Smith (9.4 ppg) and Raymone Andrews (9.2 ppg) the top performers.
Meanwhile, Mercer will take on seventh-seeded Jacksonville at Hawkins Arena in Macon, Georgia. The teams met just last Saturday in the regular-season finale, with Mercer winning easily (69-55), and it also dominated Jacksonville on Dec. 30 (86-49). The Bears, which lost their handle on first place by finishing just 2-2 over their final four games, have the A-Sun's top-ranked scoring offense (79.5 ppg) and scoring defense (66.4 ppg), and they outshoot their opponents from the field, 48 percent to 39.9 percent. Although Langston Hall (14.9 ppg) and Daniel Coursey (10.1 ppg, 6.7 rpg) are the only double-digit scorers, eight others net at least 4.0 ppg to the balance squad. Hall is also the league's top distributor with 5.5 apg. While the Dolphins were much better than the teams who finished eighth, ninth and 10th in the league standings, their 12-17 overall record and 8-10 mark in the conference was still underwhelming, although they did piece together a three-game winning streak in late-February. They have a strong offense (75.4 ppg), but the defensive effort (79.3 ppg) is the league's worst. Jarvis Haywood nets 16.8 ppg on 51.5 percent field goal shooting, and Keith McDougald adds 13.1 ppg.
In Spartanburg, South Carolina, USC Upstate will welcome sixth-seeded North Florida to the G.B. Hodge Center. The Spartans swept the Ospreys during the regular season, with each win coming by 11 points, and the Spartans are riding high into this event with wins in three of their last four games. As one of just four A-Sun teams with a positive scoring margin (+4.6), USC Upstate boasts impressive numbers on both the offensive (73.5 ppg) and defensive (68.8 ppg) ends of the court and are led by perhaps the conference's most dynamic playmaker in Torrey Craig. As the league's leading scorer, Craig pours in 16.9 ppg on 41.3 percent shooting and also adds 7.1 rpg for good measure. Ty Greene scores 14.6 ppg and has an outstanding assist (83) to turnover (26) ratio, while Ricardo Glenn puts up 13.2 ppg and leads the league in rebounding (8.0 rpg) and field-goal percentage (.632). The Ospreys had a solid campaign at 16-15 and 10-8 in the A-Sun, and they finished the regular season with back- to-back wins. While their scoring offense (72.4 ppg) isn't strong enough to support a lackluster defense (74.1 ppg), they can do plenty of damage from beyond the arc with 7.1 3-pointers per game at a 36.1 percent clip. Dallas Moore (12.5 ppg), Travis Wallace (12.3 ppg, 7.4 rpg) and Beau Beech (10.4 ppg) are the top performers for UNF.
The last of the quarterfinal matchups will take place between the fourth- seeded ETSU Buccaneers and fifth-seeded Lipscomb Bisons at ETSU/MSHA Athletic Center in Johnson City, Tennessee. The teams split the regular-season series, with each side winning on the road. The Buccaneers enjoyed a 17-14 season with a 10-8 mark in the league, although they went just 1-2 on their season-ending road trip. They are just barely able to outpace their opponents this season with a +0.8 scoring margin, although they rank first in the A-Sun in free- throw percentage (.749) and turnover margin (+2.3). The squad relies heavily on a small rotation, with six players averaging at least 9.2 ppg, while no one else nets more than 3.5 ppg. Rashawn Rembert pours in 16.8 ppg, having knocked down 96 3-pointers at a 43.4 percent clip. Jalen Riley brings 12.7 ppg to the table and A.J. Merriweather (10.0 ppg, 6.4 rpg) is solid in the paint. The Bisons went 15-14 this season and matched ETSU in the league at 10-8. They also performed admirably in their 17 road games, going 8-9, and are the league's hottest team coming into the tournament with four straight wins. Their scoring defense has been porous (78.2 ppg), but they do their best to make up for it on offense (75.2 ppg). Martin Smith (15.5 ppg), J.C. Hampton (14.9 ppg), Malcolm Smith (13.3 ppg) and Josh Williams (12.4 ppg) have all had stellar campaigns.