The first of 32 conference tournaments gets underway on Monday with the Atlantic Sun Conference tournament kicking things off. The conference was dominated by two teams: defending champion Lipscomb and newcomer Liberty as they shared the regular season title with 14-2 records.
With the Bisons and Flames pacing the league by five games, can anyone come close to challenging them? We attempt to answer those questions.
Bisons, Flames go down to final game to determine top seed
In what was a thrilling race between Lipscomb and Liberty, both teams won their final regular season game to share the conference crown with the Bisons winning the all-important tiebreaker for the top seed and home court advantage throughout the tournament.
Led by the best player in the Atlantic Sun in Garrison Matthews (19.8 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 44.9% FG, 41.3% 3-PT FG, 84.7% FT), Lipscomb (14-2, 23-6) seeks their second straight NCAA bid. Ably helping Matthews out is forward Rob Marberry 14.6 ppg, 60.6% FG) to form a dynamic one-two punch.
In their first season in the league, Liberty (14-2, 25-6) set a school record for wins as a Division I program. The Flames are a balanced squad led by junior forward Scottie James (12.6 ppg, 8.9 rpg, 68.8% FG). Also averaging in double figures are Caleb Homesley 12.1 ppg) and Lovell Cabill Jr. (11.6 ppg, 85.4% FT, 42.9% 3-PT FG).
North Florida, Florida Gulf Coast strongest challengers
Third seed North Florida won a tiebreaker over fourth seed Florida Gulf Coast by virtue of their sweep of sixth-place North Alabama. The Eagles, seeking their first NCAA appearance since 2015, are hurt by the release of forward Noah Horchler, who nearly averaged a double-double (16.0 ppg, 9.3 rpg, 53.8% FG), for violating team rules.
UNF was one of two teams to defeat Liberty and four other players join Horchler in double figures: Garrett Sams (12.0 ppg), Wajid Aminu (11.6 ppg), Ivan Gandia-Rosa (10.5 ppg) and J.T. Escobar (10.1 ppg).
Florida Gulf Coast is looking to reach the championship game for the sixth time in the last seven years and look to the talented and dangerous Schadrac Casimir. The Iona transfer posted a very efficient season stat line (14.3 ppg, 48.0% FG, 47.7% 3-PT FG, 87.9% FT). Like North Florida, the Eagles handed one of the league leaders (Lipscomb) one of their two losses.
Who will win the tournament?
It's clear Lipscomb and Liberty are the two best teams in the conference. The Bisons have the leading scorer in the league (Mathews), are the highest scoring team in the conference and are the best three-point shooting team in the league as well as the leaders in assists and steals.
The Flames are the best shooting team in the league from the field and the free throw line. James is the best shooter in the conference and they hit a ridiculous 58 percent of their shots inside the arc, fifth nationally and coach Ritchie McKay likes to play at a slower pace.
A case could have been made for North Florida. The Ospreys are the best rebounding team in the Atlantic Sun and Horchler is the leading individual rebounder as well as Aminu being the conference's leader in blocked shots. A possible semifinal with Liberty could expose the Flames weakness on the glass (they were last in the league), but Horchler is no longer on the team.
It would be dangerous to completely count out Florida Gulf Coast as the Eagles have dominated this conference for the last seven years until their fourth place finish this year and they could get a semifinal date with Lipscomb, a chance to knock off the Bisons for a second time, but this is the worst Dunk City has been, by their standards, in quite some time.
In the end, Lipscomb and Liberty should play in Sunday's final. Quite honestly, that's what the league needs as both teams are capable of getting out of the first weekend of the NCAA's. Each team won on the other's home court and should they meet for the championship, it will be one of the best conference finals played. Expect the Bisons to squeak out a thriller.
Prediction: Lipscomb def. Liberty
Tournament schedule (all times Eastern)
All games will be played at the arena of the higher seed (campus sites).
Quarterfinals (March 4)
#5 NJIT at #4 Florida Gulf Coast, 7ET (ESPN +)
#6 North Alabama at #3 North Florida, 7ET (ESPN +)
#7 Jacksonville at #2 Liberty, 7ET (ESPN +)
#8 Kennesaw State at #1 Lipscomb, 8ET (ESPN+)
Semifinals (March 7)
Kennesaw State/Lipscomb vs NJIT/Florida Gulf Coast, time TBD, (ESPN +)
North Alabama/North Florida vs Jacksonville/Liberty, time TBD (ESPN +)
Championship game (March 10)
Semifinal winners, 3ET (ESPN)