Tuesday , Feb , 28 , 2006 C.Y. Ellis

2006 Atlantic Sun Conference Tournament Preview

The Sports Network

By Ralph Lauro, College Basketball Staff Writer

FACTS & STATS: Site: Memorial Center (13,000) — Johnson City, Tennessee.
Dates: March 2-4. Annual: 27th. Television: CSS-TV (Quarterfinals and
Semifinals), ESPN2 (Championship Game). Defending Champion: UCF.

OUTLOOK: With a convincing 77-48 victory over Kennesaw State in their season
finale, the Lipscomb Bison claimed the top-seed in the Atlantic Sun Conference
Tournament with a 15-5 league record. Boulevard rival Belmont also posted a
15-5 conference mark, but lost out on the tie-breaker and therefore landed the
second seed. The Florida Atlantic Owls finished just one game back of both
teams and were awarded the third seed. The Gardner-Webb Bulldogs won five of
their last six games and leaped past East Tennessee State in the standings for
the fourth-seed at 13-7. The ETSU Buccaneers, who have the luxury of hosting
the tournament in their first year in the A-Sun, dropped their last four games
to fall to the fifth seed with a mark of 12-8. Stetson was the sixth and final
team to post a winning record in the league at 11-9, while Kennesaw State
finished an even 10-10. Kennesaw State, however, is not eligible for this
year’s tournament and that helped out the Mercer Bears greatly. The Campbell
Fighting Camels would have been the eighth and final seed in the tournament at
9-11, but instead moved up to the seventh spot with Mercer claiming the final
position at 7-13. The winner of the Atlantic Sun Tournament earns an automatic
bid to the NCAA Tournament.

The A-Sun Tournament kicks off on Thursday with top-seeded Lipscomb taking on
eighth-seeded Mercer. Lipscomb won a share of the regular season crown for the
first time since joining the A-Sun four years ago. The team also boasted the
league’s top overall mark at 19-9. The Bison closed out the regular season
with wins in five of their last six games thanks to their defense, which is
allowing a league-low 67.3 ppg. As for Mercer, it backed its way into the
tournament because of Kennesaw State not being eligible. The Bears dropped
both meetings to Lipscomb by identical 83-66 scores this season.

The second game on Thursday features second-seeded Belmont against seventh-
seeded Campbell. Belmont closed out the regular season with wins in nine of
its last 10 games, while Campbell dropped five of its last seven. The Bruins
won both meetings with the Camels during the regular season, scoring over 100
points on each occasion.

In one of the more intriguing matchups of the quarterfinal round, fourth-
seeded Gardner-Webb tangles with fifth-seeded and host East Tennessee State.
Gardner-Webb was the top seed in last year’s tournament and made it all the
way to the finals before bowing to UCF (63-54). The Bulldogs won 10 of their
final 12 games during the 2005-06 regular season, including wins over the top
two seeds in this tournament. East Tennessee State, on the other hand, dropped
its last four games to close out the regular slate. The Bucs, however, are a
solid 9-4 at home and are paced by the top scorer in the league in Tim Smith
(22.1 ppg), who twice earned MVP honors in the Southern Conference Tournament
when ETSU was part of that league.

The final game of the quarterfinals pits third-seeded Florida Atlantic against
sixth-seeded Stetson. FAU won its last four games down the stretch and is just
one of two current members in the A-Sun to have won this tournament. Stetson,
however, enters the postseason as the hottest team in the league, winning its
last eight games and 11 of 12 overall.

With regard to the all-time history of the A-Sun Tournament, Mercer and
Florida Atlantic are the only two teams remaining that have won this event.
Mercer has two titles and its 20 postseason wins all together are the most of
any of the current teams in the league. Florida Atlantic won its only title in
2002 and is 5-3 all-time in this event. Stetson has the most wins (seven) of
all the remaining clubs that haven’t won the tournament, but it also has more
than twice as many losses (15). Gardner-Webb went 2-1 in its lone appearance
in the tournament last season, while Belmont is just 2-4 all-time. Campbell
and Jacksonville, which did not make this year’s cut, are a combined 2-13 all-
time the event, while Lipscomb is 0-1.

This is about as wide open a field as you’re likely to see, as there is no
clear-cut team that will run away with this year’s A-Sun Tournament title.
Lipscomb and Belmont are probably the two most well-rounded teams, but don’t
count out Gardner-Webb, Stetson and East Tennessee State. Gardner-Webb and
Stetson are of the two hottest teams entering the tournament, while ETSU has
an advantage playing on its home floor. If Gardner-Webb can avoid a slip-up
against East Tennessee State in the first round, it could win the tournament
behind its stingy defense.

Sports Network Predicted Champion: Gardner-Webb