Atlantic Sun Conference Tournament: Will Anyone Challenge Belmont Basketball?
As one of the earlier conference tournaments, the Atlantic Sun tournament will open up on Mar. 2. With the first round lasting two days, the three-round tournament will continue through Mar. 5, when it ends with the championship game.
This season in the Atlantic Sun Conference, Belmont has been the story. The Bruins dominated the conference with their only loss coming at fourth-place Lipscomb. The Bruins are the heavy favorite to win this conference tournament and get an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
Here is a game-by-game preview of the Atlantic Sun tournament to see if Belmont has good chances to prevail as the favored team. All games are hosted by Mercer University.
Quarterfinals, Mar. 2 and 3
No. 1 Belmont vs. No. 8 Kennesaw State
Belmont has dominated the Atlantic Sun all season long. The Bruins finished the regular season with their only conference loss coming at Lipscomb. The Bruins won 19 Atlantic Sun games with an average margin of victory of 22 points.
My pick: Belmont by 24
No. 4 Lipscomb vs. No. 5 Mercer
In a rematch of the final game of the regular season, the Lipscomb Bisons match up with the Mercer Bears. Lipscomb won easily in the first meeting when the Bisons hosted, but Mercer got the best of Lipscomb in the return game, winning by one point.
Fortunately for Mercer, this game will be held on the Bears home floor.
After winning the regular season title last year, Lipscomb lost in the Atlantic Sun quarterfinals. This year, the Bisons are hungry to at least make it further into March.
The Bisons will be better prepared for playing at Mercer for a second time. This time, they will survive and advance with a close win.
My pick: Lipscomb by five
No. 3 Jacksonville vs. No. 6 North Florida
In the regular season, Jacksonville swept North Florida but only by a total of three points. In a league where almost all teams are competitive with each other, this game will also come down to the wire.
This game will be decided by defense.
Both teams are solid on defense, and defense is likely what this game will come down to. But in two defensive-minded games these two teams played during the regular season, North Florida seemed to have Jacksonville's number.
North Florida upset Jacksonville at home, and then came a last-second shot away from defeating the Dolphins on the road.
In this rubber match, expect North Florida to pull off the first-round upset.
My pick: North Florida by two
No. 2 East Tennessee State vs. No. 7 Campbell
East Tennessee State had to live in the shadow of Belmont this year. The Bucs lost two of their four league games to the Bruins, and their other two losses came by one point each on the road.
More importantly, the Bucs are an experienced team. Not only are there 10 upperclassmen on this squad, but this team has also won back-to-back Atlantic Sun tournaments.
My pick: ETSU by 13
Semifinals, Mar. 4
No. 1 Belmont vs. No. 4 Lipscomb
There is no doubt in my mind that Lipscomb will give Belmont a good fight. The Bisons were the one team to beat Belmont this season, but they also got blown out when playing at Belmont.
I expect this to be a higher-scoring game since both teams have scored in their big-time, pressure games this year. It has been in the less important games that these teams have had scoring troubles. They will not have those troubles in a semifinal game with an NCAA tournament bid on the line.
To have any chance, Lipscomb will need this to be a high-scoring game. The lower-scoring games have resulted in ugly losses for the Bisons this season.
Also, Lipscomb will have to limit its turnovers. Belmont is a strong defensive team and forces 10 steals per game. Lipscomb is not great with the ball, turning it over 16 times per game.
Ultimately, it is too unrealistic for Lipscomb to both control the pace and the ball in a way that would give the Bisons a chance to beat Belmont.
My pick: Belmont by four
No. 2 East Tennessee State vs. No. 6 North Florida
When East Tennessee State played North Florida on Feb. 13, the game was owned by the Bucs. They defeated the Ospreys 80-57 on their home floor. Again, this is a team with loads of experience, and it is looking for its third straight NCAA tournament appearance.
Who will win the Atlantic Sun tournament?
Plus, the Bucs have simply had North Florida's number so far this year.
My pick: ETSU by 11
Finals, Mar. 5, ESPN2
No. 1 Belmont vs. No. 2 East Tennessee State
This will make for a great championship game. East Tennessee State has won back-to-back Atlantic Sun tournaments, and the Bucs will be matching up against the best team in the conference.
However, despite the good story behind the game, Belmont has played very well against East Tennessee State this year, winning by 10 points in each meeting with the Bucs.
East Tennessee State's flaw is its three-point defense. In two games, the Bucs allowed Belmont to make 20 three-pointers. When Belmont makes a lot of three-pointers, opponents basically stand no chance.
My pick: Belmont by eight
Follow Jesse Kramer on Twitter @Jesse_Kramer for more college basketball news and information.
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