Continuing with where we left off ...
Location, etc.: All games held at Lipscomb's arena in Nashville; all 7 eligible teams included, top seed gets by to semifinals; championship Saturday, 6 p.m., ESPN.
The Favorite: Jacksonville's the regular season champ, Belmont are the old pros at this, and no one's more desperate than East Tennessee St., but with the tournament on their home court Lipscomb probably has better Vegas odds than any of them. After starting their A-Sun campaign a hideous 4-8, the Bisons (yes, with an "s") have reeled off eight straight, including home wins over all three of the contenders listed above. In fact, Lipscomb hasn't lost to any A-Sun team at home since dropping a one-point decision to Campbell back on Jan. 8. Led by 6-9 sophomore Adnan Hodzic and his 60 percent shooting from the floor, the Bisons sport the highest eFG in the league, an advantage that should be even more decisive on Lipscomb's home floor.
The Contender: Belmont and ETSU were the pre-season favorites, but Jacksonville matched the Bruins and Bucs step-for-step and in league play and had eventually become the de facto favorite of the numbers: they have the A-Sun's best efficiency margin by a wide margin and the second-best Pomeroy mark, trailing only Belmont--who had a massive lead when conference play began. The Dolphins are as balanced as it gets--four double-digit scorers, good shooters, solid on the boards, sticky-fingered on defense. If the tournament was on a neutral court, they'd feel awfully good about their chances.
The Darkhorse(s): Seems weird to call the team that's won this thing three years running and owns the league's best Pomeroy rating a dark horse, but Belmont seemed to deflate after narrowly missing out on a huge noncon upset of Tennessee and never lived up to their billing in A-Sun play. Six losses (including to the likes of Stetson, Mercer, and ETSU by 30) and the fourth-best efficiency mark suggest that it's just not in the Bruins' cards this year, but with four starting seniors and Rick Byrd on the bench, they can't exactly be dismissed, either. As for ETSU, the Bucs are the tempo-free state enthusiast's dream: despite playing at the league's fastest pace and routinely scoring in the 90s, ETSU built their runner-up league finish on the league's stingiest defense at .93 points-per-possession. If there's one guy in the league who could win the league tourney by himself, it's ETSU senior guard Courtney Pigram; if he gets hot and ETSU keeps up the tenacious defending, here comes the bracket.
Prediction: Like the semifinals for a lot of mid-major leagues this year, the A-Sun's semis--Jacksonville vs. Lipscomb and Belmont vs. ETSU, if seeds hold as they should--should be off the freaking hook ... and the finals quite possibly even better. Who survives? The numbers say the Dolphins (and I'll cop to hoping that either JU or hard-luck ETSU grabs the bid), but I'm betting that if you accounted for the Lipscomb that's going to show up at the tourney--i.e. the one that's been smoking everyone in the league for a month-and-a-half and will be playing at home--the numbers would look different. I'm hoping I'm wrong, but I think the smart wager is Lipscomb.
Location, etc.: All games at campus of higher seed; all 8 teams included; championship Friday March 13, 4:45 p.m., ESPN2.
The Favorite: No doubt about things here: American won the league by two full games, will have home-court advantage, a massive +.22 efficiency margin in league play, the best Pomeroy mark by 70-some odd places, three players on the All-Patriot first team, the uncontested best backcourt in the conference in seniors Garrison Carr and Patriot Player of the Year Derrick Mercer ... you get the point. Memphis might be the only team more heavily favored than AU to win their conference tourney.
The Contender: Holy Cross handed the Eagles their only Patriot loss of the season back on Jan. 24, winning 71-62 in Worcester. The Crusaders didn't exactly roll over for the league champs in the return trip, either, pulling within three in the final minutes before succumbing 56-50. The Cross does just about everything well and is the best rebounding team in the conference by a wide margin thanks to 6-9 sophomore Andrew Keister and 6-6 senior Colin Cunningham. If the AU guards have an off-night, who knows?
The Darkhorse: Navy boasts the league's second-best pair of guards in senior Kaleo Nina and junior Chris Harris, who combine for 33 points a game in a low-fi league. The Midshipmen also won't be intimidated by having to go to American, not after leading the Eagles in the final minute on their home court last week. American swept the season series, but only by a combined six points.
Prediction: The Eagles made their computer-ranking hay more by pounding the Patriot's lesser lights than by looking that impressive against the league's other contenders, so this isn't a slam dunk. But picking against a 13-1, statistically dominant league champ who gets every game at the home gym where they were undefeated this season just doesn't seem that smart. American it is.
Location, etc.: First round at campus of higher seed, all other games at Hot Springs, Ark.; All 13 teams included, top 3 seeds get byes to quarterfinals; championship Tuesday, 10 p.m., ESPN2.
The Favorite: Western Kentucky wasn't supposed to repeat in the Belt, but they did anyway, rolling to a 15-3 record and edging Arkansas Little-Rock by virtue of a season sweep of the Trojans. Even "15-3" doesn't quite reflect WKU's dominance: they went undefeated at home and lost those three decisions by a combined 11 points, the "worst" of them a five-point drop at 14-4 Troy. They had the league's best efficiency margin (+.17) by a whopping .07 points-per-possession, the league's best offense by a mile, and a late-season surge that culminated in a 19-point road beatdown of a decent Middle Tennessee St. team to cap the regular season. This is the league's best team, and it really isn't as close as the standings suggest.
The Contenders: Arkansas-Little Rock and Troy wrapped up their conference seasons tied with the Hilltoppers at 15-3 and just a game behind at 14-4, respectively. But there's reason to think both sets of Trojans might be a tad flattered by the standings. While UALR does boats the league's best defense at .92 points-a-possession, they've also been forced to suspend leading scorer Steven Moore for the season. The Trojans do have balance (three other players average double figures and Moore only averaged 13) to go with their D and will be playing close to home, so they look like the biggest challengers to WKU--but after losing to WKU by nine at home with Moore, are they really ready to beat the Hilltoppers without him? Troy might be in better shape to pull the upset, having beaten WKU at home and boasting big road wins at UALR and dangerous North Texas during a 12-1 tear to finish their Sun Belt season after start 2-3. But man, Pomeroy hates these guys (they rank fifth in the league) and their defense is atrocious--they rank 305th in eFG defense and give up more than a point a possession. With that D, is this really a team that can rip off three straight wins?
Darkhorse(s) The Sun Belt is chock-ful o' teams that could rise up and dump the favorites out of the tourney. North Texas has the league's third-best Pomeroy mark, four scorers in double digits, and lost their three games to UALR and WKU by a combined 9 points; South Alabama has a loaded, veteran frontcourt and lost a whole host of games in the final minute, including an ESPN2 special at WKU they led with less than two minutes to play; and while Middle Tennessee had to be dragged across the finish line after a fast start, the Blue Raiders are pretty much the same team that nearly stole the bid from a lower seed last season, so who knows with them.
Prediction: As you can probably tell from the above descriptions, I think Western Kentucky wins this bid with relative ease. In fact, I'd worry more about North Texas or MTSU tripping them up in the semis than I would about UALR or Troy in the final.
I'm hopeful of getting a Works post done this afternoon, but Real Life calls as well. We'll see.