The first conference tournament of college basketball's postseason begins in the Atlantic Sun as Florida Gulf Coast chases their third straight NCAA Tournament berth.
The biggest threat to the Eagles comes from Lipscomb. The Bison finished second to FGCU and defeated them 90-87 nine days ago, part of a five-game winning streak to end the regular season.
Florida Gulf Coast again the team to beat, Lipscomb top contender to knock off Eagles
Picked as the preseason favorite, the Eagles lived up to the billing, winning their first 12 conference games before ending the season on a two-game losing streak. Brandon Goodwin is the unquestioned leader of the team and was named as conference Player of the Year, averaging 14.8 ppg, 5.7 rpg and 4.8 apg.
Lipscomb enjoyed one of the best seasons in program history, notching 10 conference wins and 20 victories overall. The Bison have a dual threat in juniors Garrison Mathews, the conference's leading scorer at 21.4 points per game and Rob Marberry, averaging 16.4 ppg, 5.9 rpg and 1.9 apg as well as games of 33, 38 and 39 points.
North Florida emerges as tournament darkhorse, Masterson leads Kennesaw State
2015 A-Sun champion North Florida may only be 7-7 in conference and 13-18 overall and while they have one of the worst defenses in the country, only Villanova and Gonzaga can claim six players averaging double-digit scoring as the Ospreys can. Led by the conference's leading rebounder and Newcomer of the Year in Noah Horchler (8.7), UNF can't be counted out.
Kennesaw State has the most efficient player in the league in senior Nick Masterson, shooting 56% from the field, 55% from three-point range and a percentage point under 90% from the free-throw line as well as leading the conference in minutes played. His presence alone gives the Owls a chance as well as being on the other side of the bracket from Florida Gulf Coast.
Who will win the conference tournament and go dancing?
It's hard to see any team other than Florida Gulf Coast or Lipscomb reaching the NCAA's. They have the two best players in the league and split in the regular season, each winning on the other's home floor. Considering the entire tournament is played at campus sites, the Bison's road win will give them confidence should they meet in the final.
If an upset is to come, it's likely in the bottom half of the bracket where Masterson could lead Kennesaw State to the final based on his brilliant overall season. North Florida, as documented above, is a very dangerous team that can score, but their defense will get exposed at some point, especially as they will likely be on the road the entire tournament.
In the end, a case can be made for either of the top two teams. The Eagles have proven to be the best team all year, they have the best player in the league and home-court advantage throughout. The Bison have two fine scorers who can combine to lead them to the NCAA's and the aforementioned win in Fort Myers. It's a toss of the coin in the final, but in the end Mathews and Marberry will secure Lipscomb's first-ever NCAA bid.
Prediction: Lipscomb defeats Florida Gulf Coast in the final
All games will be played at campus sites of the higher seed.
Quarterfinals (February 26)
#8 South Carolina Upstate at #1 Florida Gulf Coast, 7PM (ESPN3)
#6 Kennesaw State at #3 Jacksonville, 7PM (ESPN3)
#5 North Florida at #4 NJIT, 7:30PM (ESPN3)
#7 Stetson at #2 Lipscomb, 8PM (ESPN3)
Semifinals (March 1)
South Carolina Upstate/Florida Gulf Coast vs North Florida/NJIT
Kennesaw State/Jacksonville vs Stetson/Lipscomb
Both games will be on ESPN3.
Final (March 4)
at highest remaining seed, 3 ET (ESPN)