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March 1, 2004 Conference Notes No Comments

Atlantic Sun Conference Notebook

by Michael Protos

Moving On Up

There are only three days remaining before the end of the Atlantic Sun regular season, and eight teams will be moving on to the conference tournament.

But eight other teams will be competing in the conference tournament in Nashville, Tenn., March 4-6. Belmont hosts the tournament and also happens to be one of the favorites to win the tournament.

Joining the Bruins at the top of the Atlantic Sun standings are Troy State and Central Florida. One of those two teams will claim the conference regular season crown by the end of this weekend. Troy State enjoys a slight advantage.

Seven teams have already clinched their spot in the conference tournament while Florida Atlantic and Gardner Webb compete for the final spot. Florida Atlantic hosts Gardner Webb in the final game for each team. In addition to Central Florida, Troy State and Belmont, the other four teams guaranteed to be in the conference tournament are Georgia State, Stetson, Mercer and Jacksonville.

Team Reports:

Troy State Trojans (19-5, 16-2)

The Trojans stretched their winning streak to 10 games as they passed Central Florida for first place in the Atlantic Sun. Troy State beat Jacksonville 81-74 in the team’s last game, as the Trojans high-octane offense fueled yet another win. Junior forward Kendrick Johnson scored 19 points to lead Troy State.

With a slight lead over Central Florida, the regular season conference title is Troy State’s to lose. The Trojans play at Jacksonville Feb. 27 and at Stetson Feb. 29. Although both games are on the road, Troy State needs to make a statement that the Trojans are the team to beat in the conference tournament by winning games against the middle of the pack regardless of location. After all, a potential second-round or championship match up with Belmont would essentially be a home game for the Bruins in front of their home crowd.

Central Florida Golden Knights (20-5, 15-3)

The Golden Knights had won 18 of 20 games and four consecutive games when they visited Georgia State – and lost. Central Florida had been in good position to win the regular season conference title but now trails Troy State after the Golden Knights lost 63-61 at Georgia State. Senior forward Dexter Lyons led Central Florida with 20 points, but only one other Golden Knight reached double figures.

The contrast between the Atlantic Sun’s top two teams is intriguing, as Troy State simply outruns and outscores opponents while Central Florida grinds down its opponents with great defense. The Golden Knights host Gardner Webb Feb. 26 and finish the season with a game at home against Campbell Feb. 28, the conference’s worst team this season. Central Florida must take care of business and pull for Jacksonville or Stetson to take down Troy State for a chance at the conference regular season title.

Belmont Bruins (19-6, 14-4)

The Bruins have won 10 of their last 11 games and are one of the better teams in the conference. They also host the conference tournament, meaning they have a great chance to reach the NCAA Tournament. Belmont played well in the team’s last game at Jacksonville, winning 73-63. Sophomore guard Brian Collins led Belmont with 23 points, which offset Jacksonville’s masterful defense against senior forward Adam Mark, the conference’s scoring leader, who finished with only eight points.

Belmont will need the role players to step forward to support Mark as the Tigers look to overtake Central Florida for the No. 2 seed with wins at home against Mercer Feb. 26 and against Georgia State Feb. 28.

Georgia State Panthers (17-8, 12-6)

The Panthers are one of only four Atlantic Sun teams to finish with a winning overall record. They have won four straight games, including the team’s last game at home against conference powerhouse Central Florida, 63-61. Senior center Nate Williams led the Panthers with 14 points. As a team, they shot 50 percent in the game to overcome the slow pace and strong defense set by Central Florida.

Georgia State will try to build more momentum heading into the conference tournament with wins on the road against Lipscomb Feb. 26 and Belmont Feb. 28.

Stetson Hatters (12-13, 10-9)

The Hatters have clinched a spot in the postseason and can move no higher than their current position as a No. 5 seed. But the Hatters need to play well in their final game against Troy State Feb. 29 to have any type of momentum in the conference tournament. The Hatters are likely to draw Georgia State in a first-round match up, and the Panthers are playing their best ball at the end of the season. The Hatters beat Lispcomb in their last game, 70-67.

Mercer Bears (11-16, 8-10)

The Bears ended a four-game losing streak with an 85-79 win against Florida Atlantic, ensuring that Mercer does not slip too far down the conference standings. The Bears will appear in the conference tournament and will likely face either Belmont or Central Florida in the first round. Neither draw is easy, but Mercer did beat Belmont earlier this season. The two play again Feb. 26 at Belmont, then the Bears finish the regular season at Lipscomb Feb. 28.

Jacksonville Dolphins (13-13, 8-11)

The Dolphins occupy seventh place in the conference standings and are a lock for the conference tournament. Jacksonville has played well, winning six of the last nine games, but lost 73-63 to Belmont in the last game. The Dolphins folded after halftime when the score was tied at 32. Junior guard David Lee led the team with 17 points. The team shot under 40 percent in the game.

Jacksonville ends the regular season at home Feb. 27 against Troy State. A win could move the Dolphins into sixth place if Mercer loses both of its final games.

Florida Atlantic Owls (8-17, 5-13)

The Owls have a tenuous hold on the final spot in the conference tournament by virtue of a 95-75 win at Gardner Webb earlier this season. The two teams meet again at Florida Atlantic Feb. 29 in a game that could easily determine which team will have that last spot. Florida Atlantic has the good fortune of hosting the conference’s worst team, Campbell, Feb. 26. The Owls lost their last game, and ninth straight, 85-79 at Mercer despite 12 points and 13 rebounds from junior forward Mike Bell.

Gardner Webb Bulldogs (8-19, 5-13)

The Bulldogs must win on the road, which they’ve only managed twice in 14 tries, to reach the conference tournament. Gardner Webb is tied with Florida Atlantic in the standings for eighth, the coveted final seed in the conference tournament. But the Bulldogs must travel to Central Florida Feb. 26 and Florida Atlantic Feb. 28. Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, Central Florida will be playing for the conference regular season title, so the Golden Knights will not take the night off, allowing the Bulldogs to steal a win. That means the Bulldogs must hope that Florida Atlantic stumbles at home against the conference’s worst team and then beat the Owls on the road. Not likely, but this is the time for some early Madness.

The Bulldogs lost their last game, on the road at Troy State, 81-74. Gardner Webb played tough throughout but could not score enough points against Troy State’s volatile offensive attack. Junior guard Josh Chiles led five Bulldogs in double figures with 16 points.

Lipscomb Bisons (7-19, 4-14)

As a sports journalist, I view the English language as a tool to produce precise information mixed with eloquence. So it pains me to write about a team that is inherently flawed – Bison is a plural word. Bisons is at bets redundant and at worst a violation of English usage. Perhaps the basketball gods also value proper English and are punishing Lipscomb for the school’s wanton use of a plural form of an already-plural word. The Bisons once had conference tournament aspirations, but a five-game losing streak has all but ended those dreams. Lipscomb lost 70-67 at Stetson in the team’s last game. Although the Bisons have a slim chance of reaching the conference tournament, they must beat Georgia State and Mercer, two of the conference’s better teams, to even have a prayer. I recommend that school officials consult the dictionary and change the team name to Bison – much like the grammar-conscious Howard Bison – thus pleasing the basketball gods and certainly reward the newly named team next season.

Campbell Camels (3-22, 3-15)

The Camels will be ending their season this weekend as Campbell finishes a dismal campaign with road games at Florida Atlantic Feb. 26 and at Central Florida Feb. 28. Unlike their desert counterparts, these Camels do not travel well, losing every road context the team has played this season. Freshman guard Anthony Atkinson offered the team some hope for the future in the team’s last 84-69 loss at Gardner Webb, scoring 17 points to lead all scores. He also dished seven assists and proved that he can be the team leader for the future.


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