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ASUN Tournament preview: Will Liberty emerge as repeat champs?

The Flames are favored to repeat, but others could challenge for the title

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Liberty vs Mississippi State
Senior guard Caleb Homesley (1) and the Liberty Flames will vie for their second straight ASUN tournament title this week.
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Joining the ASUN has been a good move for the Liberty basketball team.

The Flames finished their first ASUN campaign last year with a tournament title and entered this season as the No. 1 team in the conference preseason polls.

Liberty (27-4) has mostly lived up to that billing, but the Flames have not been untouchable as Lipscomb, North Florida and Stetson each handed them defeats in conference play.

Stetson enters the postseason on a four-game slide, making North Florida and Lipscomb the prime candidates to spoil Liberty’s hopes of a repeat. Here is a full look at the tournament, which opens Tuesday at campus sites:

Bracket

ASUN Conference

Schedule

Quarterfinal and semifinal games can be streamed on ESPN Plus. ESPN will air the championship game. The semifinals and championship game will be held at the highest remaining seeds. All times listed below are eastern.

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Quarterfinals (Tuesday, March 3)

Game 1: No. 8 NJIT at No. 1 Liberty, 7 p.m.
Game 2: No. 5 North Alabama at No. 4 Stetson, 7 p.m.
Game 3: No. 6 Florida Gulf Coast at No. 3 Lipscomb, 8 p.m.
Game 4: No. 7 Jacksonville at No. 2 North Florida, 7 p.m.

Semifinals (Thursday, March 5)

Game 5: GM 1 winner vs. GM 2 winner, time/place TBD
Game 6: GM 3 winner vs. GM 4 winner, time/place TBD

Championship (Sunday, March 8)

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

The Favorites

Liberty (27-4): The Flames were forced to share the ASUN regular-season title after a 77-71 loss at Lipscomb on Saturday. But that won’t do much to dispel the belief that the tournament title is theirs to lose. This group, led by seniors Caleb Homesley, Scottie James, and Georgie Pacheco-Ortiz, has been there before, having won the 2019 ASUN title and upsetting Mississippi State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. As an added advantage, Liberty will play all its ASUN tournament games at home. Look for the Flames to slow the pace of play to try to get high-tempo teams like North Florida and Lipscomb out of rhythm.

North Florida (20-11): No Noah Horchler? No problem for the Ospreys. After losing last year’s leading scorer to Providence, North Florida has hardly skipped a beat. In fact, the Ospreys improved on their 16-17 finish from 2018-19 thanks to the offensive-minded trio of Ivan Gandia-Rosa, Carter Hendricksen and Garrett Sams. North Florida scores a conference-leading 78.1 points per game and shoots 38 percent from three — also a league-best. The Ospreys split against the Flames during the regular season and could find themselves in the Big Dance if their shooters produce a high clip from distance.

The Dark Horse

Lipscomb (14-15): Don’t count the Bisons out yet. Despite starting ASUN play 2-5, Lipscomb won six of its final seven games to snag the No. 3 seed. Sophomore center Ahsan Asadullah is averaging a double-double and serves as the focal point for a retooled Lipscomb offense that scores 71 points per contest. The Bisons have beaten every team in the conference but have also lost to every team besides Kennesaw State. Given its recent hot steak, Lipscomb has the potential to wreak havoc in the ASUN bracket.

The Long Shots

Stetson (15-16), North Alabama (13-16): These teams play each other in the first round, and the winner will likely travel to Liberty for the semifinals. That’s not an easy path to the championship game. Stetson beat Liberty on Jan. 25 but followed it with a blowout loss to the Flames one month later. North Alabama lost both its meetings with Liberty. It would take a miracle for Stetson or North Alabama to earn the auto bid.

Players to Watch

Per game averages in parentheses

Christian Agnew – North Alabama (13 PTS, 4.5 REB, 1.5 AST, 42.6 FG%)
Ahsan Asadullah – Lipscomb (17.4 PTS, 9.6 REB, 4 AST, 51.2 FG%)
David Bell – Jacksonville (12 PTS, 10 REB, 0.8 AST, 59.8 FG%)
Michael Buckland – Lipscomb (10.5 PTS, 5.1 REB, 2.6 AST, 47 FG%)
Caleb Catto – Florida Gulf Coast (12.5 PTS, 3.9 REB, 2.6 AST, 41.3 FG%)
Zach Cooks – NJIT (19.5 PTS, 4.9 REB, 2.1 AST, 40.6 FG%)
Mahamadou Diawara – Stetson (12.8 PTS, 6.6 REB, 0.6 AST, 59.6 FG%)
Ivan Gandia-Rosa, North Florida (14 PTS, 3.3 REB, 6.4 AST, 44.9 FG%)
Carter Hendrickson – North Florida (14.5 PTS, 7.3 REB, 1.8 AST, 42.1 FG%)
Caleb Homesley – Liberty (15 PTS, 5.4 REB, 2.4 AST, 47.1 FG%)
Tyler Hooker – Kennesaw State (13.5 PTS, 3.8 REB, 1.9 AST, 36.1 FG%)
Scottie James – Liberty (11.1 PTS, 7.3 REB, 1.4 AST, 61.3 FG%)
Rob Perry – Stetson (15.3 PTS, 5 REB, 1.6 AST, 44.3 FG%)
Garrett Sams – North Florida (15 PTS, 4.6 REB, 2 AST, 43.3 FG%)

Prediction

Liberty and North Florida likely both advance to Sunday. They have been the most consistent teams and the competition standing in the way is not overly intimidating. But a rematch of last year’s title game between Lipscomb and Liberty is not out of the question, especially if the Bisons have a hot shooting night in the semifinals. Either way, the Flames escape with their second ASUN crown in as many seasons and advance to their fifth overall NCAA Tournament.