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ASUN Tournament preview: Is Lipscomb the favorite to repeat?

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Can Liberty or another dark horse take down the Bisons?

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NCAA Basketball Tournament - First Round - Charlotte Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

The story of of the ASUN’s regular season was one of dominance. Two teams, Lipscomb and Liberty, finished tied atop the standings at 14-2, giving them a five game cushion on the third place team in the standings.

Conventional wisdom would say that one of those two will be the ASUN representative in the NCAA Tournament given that the door for a two-bid ASUN has essentially been slammed shut. With two teams that have been as good as the Bisons and Flames have been all year, it should make for an exciting tournament.

Bracket

@ASUNMBB

Schedule

Quarterfinals (Mon., March 4)

ESPN+ ($) will stream all four games.

Game 1: No. 8 Kennesaw State at No. 1 Lipscomb, 7 p.m.

Game 2: No. 5 NJIT at No. 4 Florida Gulf Coast, 7 p.m.

Game 3: No. 6 North Alabama at No. 3 North Florida, 7 p.m.

Game 4: No. 7 Jacksonville at No. 2 Liberty, 7 p.m.

Semifinals (Thu., March 7)

ESPN+ ($) will stream both games.

Game 5: No. 8/5/4 at No. 1/4/5, 7 p.m.

Game 6: No. 7/6/3 at No. 2/3/6, 7 p.m.

Championship (Sun., March 10)

Game 7: Lowest-remaining seed at Highest-remaining seed, 3 p.m. (ESPN)

The Favorites

Lipscomb: As mentioned above, Lipscomb finished with a 14-2 record and was once in the discussion for an at-large bid. The reigning ASUN champs claimed the No. 1 seed by way of a tiebreaker, thus giving them home court advantage throughout the tournament. The Bisons will be and should be considered the favorite going into the tournament.

The Bisons play at one of the fastest tempos in the country and can make you pay on both ends of the floor. Their offense poured in 84.1 points per game (No. 9 in the country) and checks in as the No. 65 in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency rankings. Led by Garrison Mathews, Lipscomb knocked in 38 percent of their attempts from three-point range, making them one of the most dangerous teams in the country from the perimeter. On the other end, Lipscomb controls the arc as well to the tune of holding their opponents to just 31.3 percent from deep. The Bisons have an experienced roster and know what it takes to get it done in the postseason. With the ability to hurt teams on either end of the floor, Casey Alexander and Co. are going to be a tough out, especially with home-court advantage throughout the tournament.

Liberty: The Flames didn’t waste any time rising to the top in their first season in the ASUN. In a way, Liberty is the perfect foil for Lipscomb. Ritchie McKay — who previously served as an assistant under Tony Bennett at Virginia — has his team play at a glacial pace. A roster full of upperclassmen has led to a methodical offense that ranks No. 59 on KenPom, and the Flames boast a top 100 defense as well.

Liberty is led by a trio that all have a scoring average within a point of each other. Scottie James (12.6 PPG), Caleb Homesley (12.1) do the brunt of their damage on the interior, while Lovell Cabbil (11.6) is the team’s primary threat from outside. James is shooting an absurd 72.4 percent inside the arc, and is also Liberty’s best rebounder at 8.9 boards per contest. Liberty’s patience on offense yielded one of the most efficient offenses inside the arc. The Flames hit over 58 percent of their two-point attempts, which ranks fifth nationally. As one would expect from a team coached by a Tony Bennett disciple, Liberty forces tough shots almost every possession.

Dark Horses

North Florida: The Ospreys come in having won six straight, including a win over Liberty on in their penultimate game of the regular season. North Florida is going to shoot a lot of threes and play at a fast pace, which can be the type of high-risk, high-reward style that can be dangerous in the postseason. Hosting a quarterfinal game should give them the upper hand to advance, but a treacherous path through both Liberty and Lipscomb is a tough ask for anyone, especially with the release of leading scorer Noah Horchler last week.

NJIT: At one point in the season, the Highlanders sat at 18-5 overall and 6-2 in the ASUN, putting them squarely in the mix of the title race. A rough skid down the stretch that consisted of four losses by five points or fewer put NJIT on the outside the top four spots. But NJIT has not only a defense that was the conference’s third-best during ASUN play, but also a freshman star in Zach Cooks that should prevent opponents from treading lightly. NJIT would likely have to win three straight road games, but one should expect them to be competitive and could pull an upset if they play at the level that they’ve shown they’re capable of.

Players to Watch

Garrison Mathews - Lipscomb
Rob Marberry - Lipscomb
Scottie James - Liberty
Caleb Homesley - Liberty
Ivan Gandia-Rosa - North Florida
Zach Cooks - NJIT
Abdul Lewis - NJIT
Schadrac Casimir - Florida Gulf Coast
Jamari Blackmon - North Alabama

Prediction

Ultimately, Lipscomb has enough working in their favor that they should be the frontrunner to make their second-straight NCAA Tournament. The possibility of hosting the championship game on their home floor would theoretically give them the upper hand against Liberty in a rubber match. Overall, they’ve been a touch better than Liberty and better than the rest of the league by a wide margin. When the best team also happens to have the best player and home court advantage, it’s hard to bet against them. The Bisons will probably get it done and return to the Big Dance.