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Atlantic Sun Notebook

February 17, 2004 Conference Notes No Comments

Atlantic Sun Conference Notebook

by Michael Protos

Tight at the Top

With just about two weeks remaining in the Atlantic Sun conference’s regular season, there are three teams with a legitimate chance of winning the conference title. Central Florida, Troy State and Belmont rest on top of the Atlantic Sun standings. The three separated by merely a game.

Winning the regular season title is a matter of pride that carries no other advantages than a top seed in the conference tournament. As one of the nation’s weaker conferences, the Atlantic Sun will only get one team into the NCAA Tournament, and that team must win the Atlantic Sun conference tournament.

The Atlantic Sun conference features 11 teams, but only the top eight will compete in the conference tournament, hosted by Belmont in Nashville, Tenn. The tournament runs over three days, from March 4 to March 6. Winner goes to the NCAA Tournament, the seven losers join the other three teams on the couch to watch March Madness at home.

With Belmont having a home-court advantage, the Bruins have a great opportunity to reach the NCAA Tournament. But the Bruins have lost two out of three games to Central Florida and Troy State. So regardless of location, you have to beat the best to be the best.

Belmont does have the advantage of having one of the conference’s best players in senior forward Adam Mark. He leads the conference in scoring, averaging 20.6 points per game and is third in rebounds, averaging 8.1 rebounds per game.

Though Florida Atlantic is not in contention for the conference title, the Owls’ junior forward Mike Bell is in contention for conference most valuable player, averaging 19.3 points and 9.3 rebounds per game. Bell has had double-doubles in the past six games, but the Owls have won just one of those games. Nobody from the Owls will win the Oscar for best supporting cast member.

If you prefer sweet passes to open wingmen, then check out Troy State’s Greg Davis. The junior point guard leads the league in assists, with nine assists per game. He has an assist/turnover ratio of 3:1, which means you want the ball in his hands at clutch time. And opponents with the ball better watch out, he averages 2.4 steals per game.

On to the team news, listed according to the conference standings.

Central Florida Golden Knights (18-4, 13-2)

The Golden Knights are in good position to at least share the regular season conference title with Troy State. Central Florida split the season series with Troy State and Belmont. Of the team’s final five games, three are at home. The most challenging game will be Georgia State.

In the last week of action, the Golden Knights beat Jacksonville 78-69 and Lipscomb 73-57. Central Florida has clinched a spot in the conference tournament and will almost certainly be one of the top two seeds. Central Florida lost at Belmont 77-61 earlier this season, so the Golden Knights will either have to find a way to beat the Bruin on their home floor in the conference tournament or hope and pray that someone else takes them out early in the tournament.

Troy State Trojans (16-5, 13-2)

The Trojans earned a spot near the top of the Atlantic Sun standings by beating Belmont and Central Florida in two out of three games. The Trojans can cement their top spot by beating Belmont Feb. 15 in Nashville, Tenn. Troy State has a tough road to finish the season – literally. Four of the team’s final five games are on the road. Although most are against weaker competition like Lipscomb and Jacksonville, the road can be dangerous for any team, regardless of conference standings. Troy State can secure a top four seed by winning just one of those final five games.

The Trojans extended their winning streak to six games last week by beating Mercer 81-77. Troy State is one of the nation’s highest scoring team, averaging nearly 87 points per game. They’ve scored more than 100 points in four conference games this season. If the Trojans can beat Belmont on the road and continue to build some momentum, they may be the team to beat in the conference tournament.

Belmont Bruins (17-5, 12-3)

The Bruins are in the midst of an eight-game winning streak, including a win over conference leader Central Florida. Belmont needs to beat Troy State Feb. 15 to take a step closer to the top of the standings. A loss will all but doom the Bruins chances for a regular season conference championship and top seed in the conference tournament. But the Bruins will be the host for the conference tournament, so a top three seed might as well be a top seed with the advantage that comes with playing in front of a friendly crowd. The Bruins must be wary not to slack off in the final games as they play Georgia State and Stetson, both of which would love to replace Belmont near the top of the standings.

Belmont beat Lipscomb 69-57 in the Bruins’ only game last week. The Bruins play great defense, holding seven of the last eight teams under 65 points. So strength will meet strength when the Bruins try to shut down Troy State’s potent offense Feb. 15.

Georgia State Panthers (14-8, 9-6)

Georgia State started conference play as one of the Atlantic Sun’s hottest teams, jumping out to an 8-2 start. But the Panthers hit a rough stretch, losing four consecutive games before beating Gardner Webb 72-60 last week. The win put the Panthers back in contention for a top four seed in the conference tournament. But the Panthers must continue to take care of business or else they will be replaced by Stetson for the fourth seed in the conference tournament. The Panthers only need to win one or two more games to clinch a spot in the conference tournament, but after such a fast start to the season, the Panthers are hoping to advance in the tournament, not merely make it.

To finish the season, the Panthers play two homes games and two road games. Georgia State plays two of the conference leaders, Central Florida and Belmont, which could make or break momentum for a postseason run.

Stetson Hatters (11-11, 9-7)

Weathering an eight-game and three-game losing streak, the Hatters built a recent four-game winning streak to climb back into the thick of the Atlantic Sun standings. With a 76-72 win over Florida Atlantic, the Hatters pulled to within a half game of Georgia State for third place in the conference. Despite the wins, the Hatters have not been able to separate from opponents, winning three of those four by less than five points.

Stetson does not appear to be an Atlantic Sun powerhouse, but the Hatters can build some steam to carry into the conference tournament if they win their last three games, all of which are at home, against Belmont, Lipscomb and Troy State. A win will guarantee Stetson a spot in the conference tournament.

Mercer Bears (10-14, 7-8)

The Bears are typical of most NCAA teams; they win most home games and they lose most away games. But the Bears are especially awful on the road, winning just one game on the road all season, which occurred in the first game of the season at Ohio.

With four games remaining, the Bears must go on the road two more times against Belmont and Lipscomb. If they continue to struggle on the road, the two home games against Central Florida and Florida Atlantic will become especially important. The Bears are currently in the sixth in the conference and must stay within the top eight teams to make the tournament. The game against Florida Atlantic, which is in eighth place, could be the difference between Mercer reaching the conference tournament and watching it from the sidelines.

Jacksonville Dolphins (11-12, 6-10)

Jacksonville started conference play losing eight of the team’s first nine games. But now they won five of seven games to claim seventh place in the conference, which is good enough to make the conference tournament. But the Dolphins must finish strong. They have a solid opportunity to do so with three home games against Lipscomb, Belmont and Troy State. If Jacksonville makes the tournament, the Dolphins will likely play one of those last two teams. So the Dolphins would do well to make a statement by proving they beat them at home. Otherwise, a win on a neutral court, which also happens to be Belmont’s home court, would be much more challenging.

Last week, the Dolphins lost to Central Florida 78-69 on the road. Although it’s a loss, it’s a loss to the conference leader in a close game on the road. Coaches and players may not like to rationalize a loss as a moral victory, but for Dolphin fans, the effort must be encouraging.

Florida Atlantic Owls (8-14, 5-10)

The Owls are in the midst of a six-game losing streak, which could cost them an opportunity to play in the conference tournament. No conference tournament, no prayers for an NCAA Tournament experience. Florida Atlantic has a tenuous hold on the eighth and final position for the conference tournament and must hold off Lipscomb, which is closest to overtaking the Owls. The two teams split the season series, each winning at home. Florida Atlantic plays two tough opponents, Georgia State and Mercer, on the road and two easy opponents, Gardner Webb and Campbell, at home. The Owls must win both home games and may need to steal a road win to reach the tournament.

Right now, though, the Owls would love to beat anybody. They lost to Stetson 76-72 last week to stretch that losing streak to eight.

Lipscomb Bisons (7-16, 4-11)

The Bisons are one of three Atlantic Sun teams on the outside of the conference tournament looking in. But they have five games to turn that around and steal a spot for the conference tournament in Nashville, Tenn. But Lipscomb has won only three of the last 12 games. The Bisons probably need to win four out of five to have the best shot at reaching the tournament. The Bisons don’t catch a break, however, playing five teams that are higher in the standings. They play Troy State, Georgia State and Mercer at home and Jacksonville and Stetson on the road.

The Bisons missed an opportunity to move in to a tie with Florida Atlantic for eighth when they lost to Belmont 69-57 last week.

Gardner Webb Bulldogs (6-18, 3-12)

Despite losing five straight games, the Bulldogs are not out of contention for the conference tournament. They are just two games behind Florida Atlantic, which is also struggling to find a win. To make the tournament, the Bulldogs absolutely have to win at home against Mercer and Campbell. After those two games, Gardner Webb visits conference leaders Central Florida and Troy State. The final game will be against Florida Atlantic, which could decide the final conference tournament spot, depending on how the Owls play down the stretch.

The Bulldogs dropped their last game to Georgia State 72-60. Offense has been a problem during the team’s recent losing streak as the Bulldogs have scored more than 61 points only once.

Campbell Camels (3-20, 3-13)

The Camels have not had a spectacular season this year, winning only three games all season. The postseason is not going to happen for Campbell, although the Camels are not statistically eliminated yet. The final three games are not easy, as the Camels go on the road to end the season against Gardner Webb, Florida Atlantic and Central Florida. Campbell can play the role of spoiler for Florida Atlantic and Central Florida if the Camels can knock off either team.

Campbell struggles on defense, as the Camels have hold only two opponents under 70 points this season. And they only won one of those two games. Last week, the Camels picked up their third win of the season by beating Mercer 69-66.


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