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Atlantic Sun Tournament Primer: Can FGCU march back to the Big Dance?

NCAA Basketball: Florida Gulf Coast at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

The top of the Atlantic Sun saw Florida Gulf Coast and Lipscomb battle neck-and-neck for the regular season title. The Bison’s 65-60 victory on Feb. 9 forced a first place tie, but the Eagles ran off four-straight wins to close the regular season, giving them their first outright regular season championship.

North Florida, along with USC Upstate, Kennesaw State and Jacksonville, have provided the league with a balanced middle-of-the-pack, as has been typical of the conference in recent years.

NJIT lost its all-time leading scorer Damon Lynn to a season-ending Achilles injury in just its fifth conference game, and the Highlanders, along with Stetson, struggled, finishing at the bottom of the standings.

Back court play is where the conference shines, with the back-to-back conference Player of the Year Dallas Moore (UNF), Lipscomb’s Garrison Mathews, Kennesaw State’s Kendrick Ray and FGCU’s Brandon Goodwin all in the top five in scoring.

Tournament format

In one of the lone tournaments where home-court advantage plays a factor, the higher seed will host throughout the entire tournament.

How to watch

All four first round match ups on Monday will be streamed live on ESPN3, along with the semifinals on Thursday.

First Round:

(8) Stetson at (1) FGCU, 7 PM ET

(5) Kennesaw State at (4) USC Upstate, 7 PM ET

(6) Jacksonville at (3) UNF, 7 PM ET

(7) NJIT at (2) Lipscomb, 8 PM CT

The championship game will be at 3 PM ET on Sunday (ESPN).

Tournament bracket

3 Things to watch

  1. Will the pressure get to the Eagles?

The preseason favorites and regular season champions are expected to return to the NCAA Tournament, and will get to play at home throughout. A potential semifinal match up could see FGCU take on USC Upstate, which defeated the Eagles in Alico Arena 62-60 on a Michael Buchanan tip-in with 1.9 seconds remaining on Jan. 19.

Heading into Monday’s first round game with Stetson, FGCU has a few key players who have struggled down the stretch. Prior to the regular season finale, Zach Johnson had scored a total of 23 points in four games. Christian Terrell also missed all ten of his three-point attempts the last time out.

Expect First Team All-ASun selection Brandon Goodwin to continue the fine form he displayed all-season long, as a battle-tested Eagle squad will look to use its depth to carry it back to March Madness.

2. Which team can bust out with a three-game stretch to carry it to the Big Dance?

The 3/6 and 4/5 match ups are as intriguing as it gets, with USC Upstate hosting Kennesaw State and the battle of Jacksonville taking place with UNF hosting Jacksonville.

In these two games, Aubrey Williams for the Owls and Tanner Rubio for the Dolphins are players that can carry their respective teams all the way through the tournament.

Williams scored in double figures in all but two conference games, and is averaging 17 points per game over his last six games. The junior leads the conference with 11 rebounds per game and is key on the interior to open the perimeter up for guards Kendrick Ray and Nick Masterson.

Rubio is one of the Dolphins’ first players off the bench, and his perimeter shooting can be damaging for opponents. The freshman ranks second in the league at 49.6 percent from beyond the arc, and was even better in ASun play at 51.4 percent. He had six outings in conference play with three or more made three-pointers, including eight three-point makes against UNF in the first two meetings of the season.

3. Can Dallas Moore carry UNF back to the NCAA Tournament?

The reigning conference POY earned the honor again on Sunday, after averaging 23.8 points per game for the season. The senior’s last hurrah could see him do whatever is necessary to will UNF back to the Big Dance, where the Ospreys last appeared two years ago.

Moore has nine 30-point games to his name this season, including 39 points against Lipscomb in a 93-82 road victory on Feb. 16. If UNF gets past its inner-city rival Jacksonville on Monday, a likely meeting with the Bison would be on tap.

A big-game player, Moore is certainly capable of making special things happen with his deep range and uncanny ability to use angles to finish at the basket against length. It will be entertaining to see if the senior can carry the Ospreys.

Prediction

Florida Gulf Coast over Lipscomb