The two-time reigning champion Liberty Flames enter the 2021 ASUN Tournament as prohibitive favorites, but a unique spoiler waits in the wings.
Bellarmine sits in second place in the league standings despite this being its first season as a Division I program. Unfortunately, the Knights’ brand-new-to-D-I status makes them ineligible for the NCAA Tournament. If they were to win the ASUN Tournament, the regular season champion Flames would take the league’s auto bid.
One of the tournament’s two hosts, the Jacksonville Dolphins, have already had to drop out due to COVID-19 issues. JU would have been the 8 seed. Now, the tournament will have a 1-8 seed format with no buys or play-in games, though the field will be re-seeded after each round.
Note: All games take place in Jacksonville, Florida at two venues: Swisher Gymnasium and UNF Arena. The teams will re-seed after each round. All times eastern.
Quarterfinals (Thurs., March 4), ESPN+
Game 1: No. 1 Liberty vs. No. 8 Kennesaw State, 2 p.m.
Game 2: No. 4 North Florida vs. No. 5 North Alabama, 2 p.m.
Game 3: No. 3 Lipscomb vs. No. 6 FGCU, 7 p.m.
Game 4: No. 2 Bellarmine vs. No. 7 Stetson, 7 p.m.
Semifinals (Fri., March 5), ESPN+
Game 5: Highest remaining seed vs. Lowest remaining seed, 2 p.m.
Game 6: Second-highest remaining seed vs. Second-lowest remaining seed, 7 p.m.
Final (Sun., March 7), ESPN
Game 7: Game 5 winner vs. Game 6 winner, 2 p.m.
Liberty (20-5, 11-2): The Flames have won two straight ASUN Tournament titles and three consecutive ASUN regular season crowns. Since joining the league in 2018, they have dominated the competition with a 38-7 record in league play. Not only are they the only ASUN team ranked in the top 100 of the NET, but they’re almost 100 spots higher than the next best team (82 to Bellarmine’s 170 ranking). They also have the league’s top-scoring defense (58.9 points per game, third in the nation) and offense (74.9).
In the non-conference, the Flames attempted to schedule a challenging slate with five Power 5 schools in the lineup. Wins over Mississippi State and South Carolina and a loss to TCU aren’t necessarily worth writing home about. They did have two Q1 win opportunities, but lost both (neutral site contests vs. Purdue and at Missouri)
They enter the tournament having won 12 of their last 13 games, including nine in a row. Darius McGhee, one of only two remaining rotational members from the 2018-19 team that upset Mississippi State in the first round of the Big Dance, is the potential ASUN Player of the Year. Seniors Elijah Cuffee (the other remaining contributor from the 2018-19 team) and Chris Parker (a D-II transfer) provide stability.
The Dark Horses:
Bellarmine (13-6, 10-3): The 94-78 loss at home to Liberty in the regular season finale is concerning, but the Knights are a legit threat to win the whole thing. It would be quite the accomplishment in year one as a D-I program. And the reward for potentially pulling off such a feat? A hearty pat on the back and a certificate to the jelly of the month club. Even though the Knights aren’t eligible to play in the NCAA Tournament, their balanced offensive attack should make for a challenge.
Lipscomb (15-11, 9-6): Lipscomb can play with the conference’s top dogs. The Bisons won twice at Bellarmine and split at home vs. Liberty to open ASUN play. Do-it-all big man Ahsan Asadullah, who leads the team in points, rebounds, assists, and blocks, will need to pick up where he left off in the previous ASUN Tournament, where he set the record for total points (89) and rebounds (42) during their surprise run to the title. JUCO transfer Romeao Ferguson has also been a huge success for the Bisons this season, providing off-the-bounce scoring from the perimeter. If the supporting cast can provide a consistent threat, Lipscomb could pull off the tournament upset.
The Long Shots:
North Alabama (11-10, 7-8): It’s been a streaky run through conference pay for the Lions. After opening up the slate with a loss to Stetson, they won six in a row, then lost seven in a row, before closing out the regular season with a win over Lipscomb. Their run will depend on which version of this team shows up.
FGCU (9-7, 4-5): FGCU didn’t play Liberty in the regular season, were swept by Bellarmine, and split with Lipscomb. They’ll need to perform better against the top tier of teams if they want to advance, but, like usual, the talent is there.
North Florida (8-14, 6-6): The only “home” team left after Jacksonville was forced to drop out will enter as the 3 seed. Carter Hendrickson can score with anyone in the conference. He and UMBC transfer Jose placer make for a potent one-two punch.
Players to Watch:
Darius McGhee, Liberty (15.5 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 41.4% 3-PT FG%)
Chris Parker, Liberty (10.1 PPG, 3.6 APG, 46.2% FG%)
Elijah Cuffee, Liberty (15.6 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 48.8% FG%)
Pedro Bradshaw, Bellarmine (10.5 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 52.2% FG%)
Dylan Penn, Bellarmine (12.6 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 3.6 APG)
Ethan Claycomb, Bellarmine (10.6 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 2.8 APG)
Ahsan Asadullah, Lipscomb (14.2 PPG, 7.9 RPG, 3.5 APG)
Romeo Ferguson, Lipscomb (13.6 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 48.9% FG%)
Mervin James, North Alabama (13.5 PPG, 7.1 RPG, 46.1 FG%)
Emanuel Littles, North Alabama (9.3 PPG, 10.1 RPG, 51.3% FG%)
Cyrus Largie, FGCU (12.3 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 55.3% FG%)
Caleb Catto, FGCU (13.2 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 40.4% 3-PT FG%)
Carter Hendrickson, North Florida (15.1 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 36.5% 3-PT FG%)
Jose Placer, North Florida (14.5 PPG, 3.4 APG, 49.0% FG%)
Rob Perry, Stetson (14.9 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 40.9%FG%)
Christiaan Jones, Stetson (12.3 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 44.4% FG%)
Spencer Rodgers, Kennesaw State (16.8 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 44.7% FG%)
Make it three in a row as the Flames continue their tyranny over the ASUN with a tough championship battle vs. Lipscomb.