Atlantic Sun races getting very warm

Macon TelegraphFebruary 4, 2014 

    Things just got good. Er, better.
       The basketball races in the Atlantic Sun are on.
       OK, they were on anyway, because neither Mercer's men nor Florida Gulf Coast's women were going to sprint away from the rest of the field, although Mercer's men had a chance.
       The game now for a day is figuring out which was the bigger surprise, Mercer's 19-point loss on Sunday at USC Upstate or FGCU's 20-point loss at Northern Kentucky on Saturday.
       They're both about even.
       FGCU clearly isn't quite on the level of the past several years, and that's been clear for bit. And Northern Kentucky is so far having a nice transition to Division I. FGCU knows the feeling.
       But nobody was owning A-Sun women's hoops when FGCU joined like the Eagles have since joining.  After all, they had won 44 straight regular-season conference games.
       That's remarkable, even in a weak conference.
       While NKU has been good, Stetson was clearly the favorite to be the team to finally break the streak. And rest assured, the Hatters really wanted to be that team, although winning the tournament title last year is a bit better.
       What takes a little oomph out of the race is that NKU is ineligible while transitioning to Division I. The Norse are in third place, a game ahead of USC Upstate and Jacksonville.
       The Stetson-FGCU race is obviously one to watch - no such storyline exists in the Southern Conference - as it always is, but the other thing is to keep an eye on the battle for those other two home tournament spots.
       Upstate and Jacksonville have a two-game lead on Mercer, which is one game up on ETSU and two up on Kennesaw State.

      And all five are in the hunt. Even Kennesaw "on a six-game losing streak" State, which is just missing, as opposed to really missing.
       USC Upstate knocking off Mercer was, on paper, no real shock, although only about 500-600 fans on hand - sure, a Sunday, but still - was disappointing.
       The surprise was that it happened with guard Ty Greene sidelined with a broken hand. He's a huge impact player, and losing him on the Thursday before the weekend didn't give the Spartans much time to adjust.
       Granted, Friday's opponent was Kennesaw State, so yeah, there was a little time. But the Spartans pulled the redshirt off of Josh Cuthbertson, who played 17 minutes on Sunday.
       Torrey Craig was huge, joined by Ricardo Glenn as the only Spartans to shoot worth a hoot, Craig 10 for 18 and Glenn 3 for 4. Everybody else? 9 for 28.
       Upstate was 30 of 40 at the line to 14 of 20 for Mercer, which was outrebounded by eight, had 50-percent days from only T.J. Hallice, Darious Moten and Monty Brown. Mercer's starters went a shocking 10 for 35. Bud Thomas was squeezed into a 1-for-6 day, and the second-tallest man on the floor, Daniel Coursey, took two shots from the floor and didn't get to the line.
       He had only two fouls, while Hallice and Moten fouled out. And Langston Hall was the leading rebounder.
       Point guards shouldn't be the leading rebounder in a big game for the taller team.
       But Upstate has been an enigma the past season and a half, having the talent to be a better contender. Craig is a tough get for everybody, and Glenn can be a force. Nobody likes chasing around Greene.
       The 62-60 overtime loss at Mercer was exacerbated by losing two days later at Kennesaw State. Apparently, the wakeup call was pretty much delivered, even with losses at FGCU and Stetson.
       Mercer is still the best team in the conference, but for the second season in a row gives us a befuddling loss.
       Befuddling in this case that the starters shot so poorly, two backups fouled out, the center was of no impact at all, and the Bears were really hardly even in the game.
       North Florida was up by 28 against Mercer, but the Bears stormed back to lose by six. Upstate led by 20, and there really was no comeback.
       What the game did was assure that Florida Gulf Coast's ticket folks would have some busy stretches in prep for Mercer's visit on Feb. 21, a Friday night. Pointed out before the game at Mercer that the fire marshal better be on his toes for the night.
       But before that, FGCU hosts Jacksonville (and will avenge a loss at JU) and then welcomes North Florida, which is very much a game to watch. The Ospreys are inconsistent, which means they're also capable.
       The Eagles are at ETSU (one never knows) and then - drum roll - head into the little Hodge Lodge at Upstate five days before Mercer's visit.
       The Bears have Kennesaw State, Lipscomb and Northern Kentucky before the trip south. Lipscomb has become frisky, and won't want to be Mercer's 20th victim of the season.
       FGCU has two major roadblocks before Feb. 21, Mercer half of one. The Eagles could be playing to get back into a tie just as easily as for the conference lead.
       And here's the thing: Whoever gets the top seed will win the tournament. Period. There will be no upset.
       The blood will be shed for those other two home spots, one of which (Upstate) may force the A-Sun into a venue situation.

       Nevertheless, things are getting good.



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