A-Sun tournaments coming to Mercer

Bill Underwood said he didn’t get the official word until about an hour earlier, but he already had a hunch.

“When I read their press advisory,” the Mercer president said. “That pretty much gave it away.”

The Monday afternoon e-mail release from the A-Sun noted that conference officials were “expecting many people from the conference, Mercer and the city” and suggested early arrival to the Tuesday afternoon announcement at Mercer.

And with assorted city and county leaders on hand, A-Sun commissioner Ted Gumbart avoided any dramatic buildup, giving the news away before making it official.

“I do want to thank President Underwood for his driving force and support and interest in bringing the event here as one of the bidders, to bring it to Bibb County, to the city of Macon and to Mercer University,” Gumbart said, leading up to the announcement. “It’s my privilege and my pleasure to officially announce that our 2010 and our 2011 General Shale Brick A-Sun basketball championships will be played right here at the University Center.”

And with that, the 100 or so onlookers — comprised of staff, faculty, administration, student-athletes, UC workers and boosters — cheered and applauded.

The news conference was held on the concourse overlooking the University Center court, which celebrated its fifth birthday in January.

Joining Gumbart on a makeshift stage with a Mercer backdrop were Macon mayor Robert Reichert, Bibb County Commission chairman Sam Hart, Macon-Bibb County Convention & Visitors Bureau president and CEO Janice Marshall, as well as Underwood, Mercer athletics director Bobby Pope and Mercer Athletic Foundation president Diane Owens. Mike Ford of NewTown Macon was in the audience.

“It’s about time,” said Pope, who started as athletics director in 1989. “We are the only charter member remaining in the Atlantic Sun Conference, and we have never hosted the Atlantic Sun Conference championship. We joined the league in 1978, and we never had a building like we have today.”

Mercer played basketball and volleyball at Porter Gym, built in 1937, until 2004. Also home to the athletic department offices, it was a remarkably antiquated building that had no air conditioning, only a few small public restrooms and had wooden-bench seating for about 450 fans.

“It’s the best in the conference, and I’ll put it up against any facility we’ve got going in our league,” Pope said of the University Center. “We want to have the best experience for the student-athletes, the coaches, the fans, and I think we can provide that.”

Next year’s tournament will run March 3-6 and the 2011 tournament March 2-5.

“This is a great day for Macon,” Reichert said. “What a fun time this is going to be. I’m already excited.”

Afterward, Reichert confessed that he hasn’t been to a Mercer basketball game in a while.

“Not one this year,” he said with a smile. “But one of my New Year’s resolutions is to do better next year.”

Reichert, Hart and Marshall pledged that they and their organizations would do whatever necessary to make the event a success. Hart said local leaders had attended a retreat at which the face of a community was discussed.

“One of the things that came out of that was that we needed to put a good face on our community, we need to talk about good things,” Hart said. “This certainly helps to put a good face on our community.”

The announcement ended a run in Tennessee and Alabama. The men have played at two years each at Belmont, East Tennessee and Lipscomb. Dothan, Ala., handled the women’s tournament for four straight years until the conference put both together two years ago when the men moved to Lipscomb.

The format will remain the same, with both men and women coming to Macon, which has been home to the conference office since 1992.

Sybil Blalock, one of Mercer’s top all-time women’s basketball players and senior associate athletics director for academic affairs as well as senior women’s administrator, will serve as tournament director. Owens, an attorney in Atlanta, played with Blalock at Mercer in the late 1970s.

“She really knows how to get things done,” Owens said. “You don’t worry about it being organized. She graduated No. 1 in her class in mathematics. And she wasn’t just good in sports, she was the last one cut from the Olympic team in 1976.”

Underwood said he started contemplating the possibility about a year ago and mobilized staffers two months ago to get serious.

“I think I decided pretty early on that it would be good to bring it to Macon and to Mercer,” he said. “I think we needed to demonstrate that we were ready for it. I think the game with Alabama and the game with Georgia Tech from a game management and crowd management perspective showed that we could put on this kind of event.

“And I really wanted us to begin building some community support for Division I basketball, that we could fill up the seats for a tournament.”

Mercer’s men finished fourth in the A-Sun in attendance with an average of 1,707, highlighted by an overflow crowd of 3,304 against Georgia Tech and 3,098 against Lipscomb. Alabama’s visit two seasons ago drew nearly 3,300. The UC seats 3,200.

The women were last in attendance with an average of 264.

Three A-Sun men’s teams are still playing. East Tennessee State won the automatic bid and plays Pittsburgh on Thursday in Dayton, Ohio, in the NCAA tournament. Jacksonville, the regular-season champ, visits Florida in the NIT. Belmont, which won the A-Sun three straight years, is at Evansville in the inaugural tournament.

ETSU’s women earned the NCAA bid and play No. 4 Iowa State on Friday. Florida Gulf Coast is ineligible for A-Sun postseason as it continues its transition from Division II, but Florida Gulf Coast won the regular-season title and hosts George Washington in the women’s NIT on Thursday.

Kennesaw State and North Florida will complete that transition this year and becoming full members of the conference starting next fall.

Gumbart said schools made presentations at the start of the A-Sun tournament two weeks ago in Nashville and that Mercer was a favorite after that part of the process was completed, edging Belmont and Jacksonville.

“The general enthusiasm from the entire Mercer contingent” was a key, Gumbart said. “We could have had a great event at any of the places that were interested, but sometimes you just get the feeling that it’s time to be here. That was a strong factor.”

A handout had the distance from each conference school to Macon, and the average was 321 miles. The average ride to Nashville for A-Sun teams is 487 miles.

Fort Myers, Fla., home to Florida Gulf Coast, is the only city more than 400 miles from Macon. Four cities are at least that far from Nashville.

The time may be quite appropriate. Mercer’s men and women both had winning seasons, the first time that’s happened since 1995-96, and the men lose only one senior.

“I think there is a core of basketball fans in this area, and I would think they would want to come and see something that’s never happened here before,” Gumbart said. “We’ve never determined the NCAA qualifier here in Macon.”