The Atlantic Sun Conference tournament gets underway Monday night with top seed Florida Gulf Coast, aiming for their third NCAA Tournament berth in six years, leading the way.
When: February 27 (quarterfinals), March 2 (semifinals), March 5 (final)
Where: All games will be held on campus sites, with the highest seed in each game hosting.
Matchups: #8 Stetson at #1 Florida Gulf Coast
#5 Kennesaw State at #4 South Carolina Upstate
#6 Jacksonville at #3 North Florida
#7 NJIT at #2 Lipscomb
Dunk City heavy favorites
After returning to the Tournament last year for the first time since their magical Sweet 16 run in 2013 as a #15 seed, coach Joe Dooley's Eagles were tabbed as preseason favorites and they played the part, capturing their first outright regular season title in program history.
FGCU (12-2, 23-7) is led by Brandon Goodwin, the conference Newcomer of the Year and a member of the A-Sun first team, the fifth straight year a member of the \Eagles has made the team. In becoming the first team to post an undefeated league record since 1999, Dooley was named Atlantic Sun Coach of the Year.
Demetris Morant was named A-Sun Defensive Player of the Year, leading the conference with 1.5 blocks per game as well as 10.5 points and 8.2 rebounds per game.
Lipscomb, North Florida top challengers
Finishing second were Lipscomb (11-3, 19-12). The Bison battled Florida Gulf Coast for the regular season title all the way down to the final game of the season. The Bison are having their finest season since winning the regular season crown in 2006. Led by Garrison Mathews, fourth in the A-Sun, averaging 19.8 points per game, And ASun second team member Rob Marberry, Lipscomb defeated FGCU in Fort Myers 65-60, only one of two conference foes to accomplish the feat.
Sitting in third are 2015 champions North Florida (8-6, 13-18). Despite their overall losing record, the Eagles are a threat thanks to the brilliance of Dallas Moore, the two-time Atlantic Sun Player of the Year, averaging almost 24 points per game while also scoring at least 20 points in twenty games this season, and has scored 30 or more nine times. In conference games, Moore averaged 25.4 points per game, the most in the A-Sun in 30 years.
Moore does have help in the form of two outstanding freshman, Wajid Aminu and Garrett Sams, both named to the conference's all-freshman team.
Rest of the pack
South Carolina Upstate (7-7, 17-14) and Kennesaw State (7-7, 13-17) tied for fourth place, but the Spartans won the tiebreaker. Led by A-Sun first teamer Michael Buchanan, second in the conference with 9.2 rebounds per game and with five straight 20-point games heading into the conference tournament, USC Upstate was the other team to defeat Florida Gulf Coast in conference play.
Kennesaw State is led by another all Atlantic Sun first team honoree, Michael Ray. Averaging 20.9 points per game, second in the conference behind Moore, while nailing 80 three-pointers, the Owls will seek their first conference tournament win since 2010.
Sixth place went to Jacksonville (5-9, 17-14). The Dolphins will look to the versatile J.R. Holder, a second team A-Sun selection who led the team in scoring, free throws made, blocks & minutes played. The Dolphins have not won in the Atlantic Sun tournament since 2010 and have lost eight straight to quarterfinal opponent North Florida.
In their second year in the conference, NJIT (11-19, 3-11) landed in seventh place, a year after finishing second in their debut season. With a tough task ahead of them in facing Lipscomb in the A-Sun quarterfinals, the Highlanders will turn to all-freshman selection Anthony Tarke, leading the conference in scoring among freshman at 12.5 points per game and Abdul Lewis, averaging nearly a double-double (13.4 ppg, 9.4 rpg) in conference action.
Bringing up the rear in eighth place is last year's finalists, Stetson (3-11, 11-20). The Hatters lost in the championship game in overtime to Florida Gulf Coast last year even though they were ineligible to play in the NCAA Tournament, the conference allowing them to participate in the A-Sun tournament. Led by last year's freshman of the year and second-team all conference member this year Derick Newton (17.8 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 81.3 % free throws), Stetson gets an instant rematch with FGCU in the quarterfinals.
Who will go dancing?
Despite the brilliance of Moore and the excellent season posted by Lipscomb, it would be hard to pick against Florida Gulf Coast returning to the NCAA Tournament for the third time in six years. The Eagles are the best team in the conference, have home-court advantage and their two losses to Lipscomb and South Carolina Upstate were by a combined seven points. The best team doesn't always win the conference tournament in one-bid leagues like this, but in this case, the Eagles will do just that.
Prediction: Florida Gulf Coast defeats North Florida in the final.