With Belmont moving to the Ohio Valley Conference for the start of the 2012-13 season, the Atlantic Sun race has changed. The Bruins have moved on, but the competition remains at the top of the Atlantic Sun. Both Mercer and Florida Gulf Coast, who finished first and second in the conference, have non-conference wins over high-major BCS opponents this season. Mercer beat both Florida State and Alabama, while Florida Gulf Coast got an early win over now-No. 6 Miami.
As the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds in this tournament, the two are the most likely to end up in the conference championship game on March 9, but there are a few teams that can’t be overlooked. Take a look below:
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Where: Hawkins Arena (Macon, Georgia)
When: March 6-9
Final: March 9, 12 p.m. (ESPN2)
Mercer has non-conference wins over Florida State and Alabama, as was mentioned above, but was also one of three teams all year to lose to 3-27 Kennesaw State. Defense is the centerpiece for the Bears, who rank in the Top 15 nationally in opponent points per game, giving up an average of just 57.4. Added to that, 0pponents shoot just 39 percent from the floor against them.
And if they lose? Florida Gulf Coast
FGCU got a huge non-conference win over a Reggie Johnson-less Miami earlier this season and, contrasted with Mercer’s defensive-oriented approach, the Eagles like to put points on the board. Conference Player of the Year Sherwood Brown, Bernard Thompson, and Chase Fieler all average in double figures and the team is in the Top 50 nationally in shooting percentage.
Sleeper: USC Upstate
Led by one of the conference’s best player, Torrey Craig, Upstate has been stuck in the crowded middle of the pack behind FGCU and Mercer. They rebound the ball well, which will be important in tournament games, and share the ball, ranked 23rd in the country in assists.
– Torrey Craig (USC Upstate): The reigning conference player of the year has been back at it again this season. The junior averaged 17.1 points and 7.1 rebounds per game, perhaps on track for another POY season. Upstate finished 9-9 in the conference slate, but will be looking for the automatic bid.
– Sherwood Brown (Florida Gulf Coast): Brown leads the high-scoring FGCU attack with 15.2 points and 6.3 rebounds per game. The senior leader and three-point shooter will be key for the Eagles in the Atlantic Sun tournament.
– Adam Pegg (Stetson): The 6-9 senior is averaging 15.6 points and 6.2 rebounds per game for a Stetson team that is sandwiched between the top-tier FGCU and Mercer teams and the crowded pack of 9-9 teams below it. Pegg had a big 23-point, 12-rebound game against Lipscomb earlier in the year.
– Stephen Hurt (Lipscomb): Hurt will likely be named the Atlantic Sun Newcomer of the Year after averaging 11.8 points and 7.9 rebounds per game. His team faces a tough first-round matchup with Mercer in this tournament, but the 6-10 freshman will be one to watch.
CBT Prediction: Mercer and Florida Gulf Coast are locked in another battle in the Atlantic Sun championship game, but Mercer’s defense prevails to snag the automatic bid.
Daniel Martin is a writer and editor at JohnnyJungle.com, covering St. John’s. You can find him on Twitter:@DanielJMartin_