The first conference tournament of the college basketball season gets underway with the 2023 Atlantic Sun men's basketball tournament.
Kennesaw State and Liberty shared the regular-season title, but the Owls won the tiebreaker to earn the top seed by virtue of their victory over the Flames last week.
All games will be played on the home court of the higher seed from the quarterfinals on. Because there is no travel day in between the first round and quarterfinals, the seventh seed plays the eighth seed at Liberty the ninth seed faces the tenth seed at Kennesaw State.
The tournament will re-seed (should it be necessary) after the quarterfinals.
First Round - March 27
#10 Florida Gulf Coast vs #9 Queens, 7PM at Kennesaw
#8 Bellarmine vs #7 North Florida, 7PM at Lynchburg
Quarterfinals - February 28
Florida Gulf Coast/Queens at #1 Kennesaw State, 7PM
#5 Lipscomb at #4 Stetson, 7PM
#6 North Alabama at #3 Eastern Kentucky, 7PM
Bellarmine/North Florida at #2 Liberty, 7PM
Semifinals - March 2
The two highest remaining seeds will host the semifinal games at times to be determined.
Final - March 5
at highest remaining seed, 3PM (ESPN2)
Kennesaw State, Liberty heavy favorites
Just three years ago, Kennesaw State finished 1-28. Fast forward to 2023 and the Owls set a school record with 23 wins and have home-court advantage throughout the conference tournament.
Despite a loss against Queens in their last home game, 10 of their 11 wins at the Convocation Center were by double digits.
The players to watch are Chris Youngblood, who scored in double digits all but once at home while averaging 15.3 points per game while shooting 43.4% from three-point range and Brandon Stroud, the Atlantic Sun Defensive Player of the Year.
Liberty are no strangers to this time of year as the Flames seek their fourth NCAA Tournament bid since 2018 and they boast one of the best players in mid-major basketball in Darius McGhee.
The senior, one of three on the roster, first in the country in the percentage of shots taken, second in three-pointers made and fifth in points per game at 22.5.
Shiloh Robinson and Blake Preston are two of the most efficient big men in the country, anchoring a Liberty offense that ranks 10th in the country in both effective field goal and two-point percentage, along with being ranked 59th in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency.
The Flames also allow the lowest percentage of offensive rebounds in the country and rank 39th in defensive efficiency.
Stetson had high-profile wins during non-conference play, defeating USC and South Florida, but struggled against the upper echelon of the A-Sun.
While the Hatters are a strong offensive team with three players ranked in the top 70 of three-point percentage and are 32nd in adjusted offensive efficiency, their defense is in the bottom 50 in the country.
Eastern Kentucky plays "the most exciting 40 minutes in sports", ranking 41st in tempo, but they're at a severe disadvantage in that they are in the bottom 60 in the nation in offensive efficiency and height.
Lipscomb is the most dangerous team in the tournament outside of the top two due to boasting a frontcourt of Ahsan Asadullah (7.0 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 3.3 APG, 47.3% FG%) and Jacob Ognacevic (16.9 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 60.6% FG%).
Will Pruitt is the leader in the backcourt, leading one of the best offensive teams in the country.
North Alabama is the new emerging power in the league, especially with both Kennesaw State and Liberty leaving the A-Sun in the next two years.
The Lions boast offensive talent all over the floor. In the last 12 games, Daniel Ortiz has made 49 three-pointers while averaging 19.6 points per game. Jacari Lane leads all freshmen in the league in scoring, while KJ Johnson is money from the free-throw line and can drop 30 points on any given night.
It's hard to choose between Kennesaw State and Liberty because on the one hand, the Owls have dominated at home, are a stout defensive team and just beat the Flames.
On the other hand, McGhee is the Atlantic Sun Player of the Year, Liberty has experience in March and are an extremely efficient offensive team.
Lipscomb beat Liberty and could face the Flames in the final while North Alabama has the type of offensive talent that could go off at any time.
I'll go with Kennesaw State in a classic final against Liberty to complete the fairytale story, similar to what Longwood did in the Big South last year.