Championship Sunday is upon us in the Atlantic Sun as Florida Gulf Coast and North Florida duke it out for a bid to the NCAA Tournament at 3 p.m ET on ESPN.
The Eagles, the preseason favorite to make a return trip to March Madness after winning their First Four matchup against Farleigh Dickinson a year ago, finished with 20 plus wins for the fourth straight season under Joe Dooley.
The Ospreys, picked to finish second in the preseason, took it on the chin during a tough non-conference slate, which included trips to UConn, Syracuse, Arkansas, LSU and Miami, but closed the conference slate strong with four wins in their final six contests to earn the three seed in the league tournament.
The respective paths for each team in the conference tournament saw the Eagles take care of business and the Ospreys continue their season dominance over two opponents. Florida Gulf Coast easily ran away from Stetson in the quarterfinals 87-57, and pulled away from Kennesaw State in the second half to win 74-62. North Florida had to fight off their intra-city rivals Jacksonville 77-74 in the quarterfinals, and used a three-point avalanche - canning 16 treys - to overcome Lipscomb on the road 91-85.
On the surface, the Eagles have had one of their best seasons in school history with 23 wins. But they have had their share of problems from a personal standpoint. This primarily revolves around the status of preseason all-conference first teamer Marc-Eddy Norelia.
A broken hand suffered in practice leading up to the start of the season sidelined the 6’8 forward for the first four contests. He returned for the next seven games before leaving the team for personal reasons, and his status going forward was up in the air.
Norelia did return with a monster 23-point performance on the road at Kennesaw State on Jan. 11, but has been in and out of Dooley’s starting lineup and rotation. This includes only playing four minutes in the second meeting with North Florida on Jan 30.
Despite that, the Eagles have seen a big jump in offensive productivity from senior Demetris Morant in the paint, where the they thrive, spending most of the season right at the top of points in the paint nationally. They are led by junior guard Brandon Goodwin, who has been one of the best transfers in college basketball all season.
Coming in from UCF and sitting out last season, Goodwin has three game-winning shots to his credit on the campaign, and averages 18.2 points per contest to earn first-team ASun honors.
Backcourt stalwarts Zach Johnson and Christian Terrell have also been reliable scoring options for Dooley in their time as Eagles, but each have had inconsistent stretches of play where they have not been at their best.
Key bench players include the high-flying Rayjon Tucker, who leads the team making 46 percent(28-61) from beyond the arc, Antravious Simmons, who can be a load in the paint using his wide body, and defensive specialists Reggie Reid and Kevin Mickle.
With the issues that the Eagles have had at times offensively, Dooley has put his stamp on his roster by demanding his team to compete defensively to keep them in games. Florida Gulf Coast leads the league in scoring defense, allowing just 69 points per game.
The Ospreys have one of the ultimate alpha dogs of college basketball in senior point guard Dallas Moore.
The 6’2 guard had a three-game stretch against Florida, Syracuse, and Arkansas in which he scored 31, 30 and 34 points, and added four more 30-point games in conference play before putting 37 on Jacksonville in Monday’s quarterfinal win. Moore took conference player of the year honors for the second year in a row, averaging 23.8 points per game in the regular season.
North Florida has also had to deal with a key piece to their roster, having issues off the floor as senior forward Chris Davenport missed time due to personal reasons. This left Driscoll’s rotation in a bit of a conundrum throughout the season.
Two freshmen - Garrett Sams and Wajid Aminu - have been terrific all season long in key spots. Sams, a 43 percent three-point shooter, hit a huge one late on Monday and two foul shots to seal the win, and knocked down all four three-point attempts Thursday against Lipscomb. Aminu also had a good showing in the first two rounds during the week, with nine points Monday and 12 points Thursday.
Big man Romelo Banks gives the Ospreys a formidable frontline - along with Davenport and Aminu - that will need to combat the strength of the Eagles in the paint.
Who has the edge?
The Eagles went into Jacksonville on Jan. 25 and scored a huge road victory with a 51-point second half. This was capped by Goodwin’s corner 3-pointer with 34 seconds left that gave Florida Gulf Coast the lead for good in an 86-82 win.
Just five days later, the Eagles scored a relatively easy victory over the Ospreys by a 74-59 margin, with Goodwin again showing his scoring ability with a season-high 29 points.
Moore has struggled in four contests lifetime at Alico Arena, averaging eight points per game, and is 1-3 on trips to Fort Myers.
The Ospreys had an incredible night shooting from the perimeter in Nashville Thursday, and one would think it would be hard to duplicate that. One man to watch for North Florida is senior guard Aaron Bodager, as he has hit 13 of his last 25 attempts from three over his last three games.
For the Eagles, it is paramount to keep Moore in check at the offensive end. They have three guards mobile enough to stay in front of him and not allow him to get to the rim.
Johnson will likely get the assignment, but Reid could be a key component to keep fresh legs chasing Moore around in the half court. Goodwin will likely work away from Moore on the defensive end, and will be relied upon to continue his scoring ways like he has all year long.
Depth favors the Eagles in the event of early foul trouble to either key guard, as the offense for Florida Gulf Coast can be in the capable hands of Terrell. Conversely, the Ospreys ball-handling drops off if Moore has to go to the bench.
If the Eagles get the best from Morant and Norelia underneath, it should allow creases for Goodwin and Johnson to do what they do best: attack the rim and score at a high percentage.
For the Ospreys to find a way to win, secondary scoring will be paramount to support Moore and take the pressure off of their senior leader.
The pick: Florida Gulf Coast 76, North Florida 65