There are 33 conferences in Division-1 basketball, but only one of them has provided the most stunning March Madness upsets in each of the past two seasons.
That would be the Atlantic Sun. For those hoping to finally fill out the perfect NCAA Tournament bracket, the A-Sun has been the cause of a lot of angst. For those who root for the underdog and enjoy good basketball, it has been a lot of fun to watch.
First came the unheralded bunch from little-known Fort Myers. In 2013, the Eagles dunked their way into the hearts of American’s everywhere while securing the first-ever Sweet Sixteen berth by a 15 seed.
Last year, it was Mercer who traveled to Raleigh, N.C. to play No. 3 Duke. The Bears knocked the breath out of the Cameron Crazies in a 78-71 win over the Jabari Parker led Duke squad.
Although Parker is now playing in the NBA and Mercer has moved on to the Southern Conference, the A-Sun is still hoping to bust many a bracket this March.
While the postseason heroics of the A-Sun have been well documented, the small 8-team conference is still seeking the respect of experts around the nation. A recent ranking by CBS Sports placed the A-Sun 30th out of the 33 conferences. After losing two respected members (Mercer and ETSU) and seeing a number of impressive talents graduate, the conference appeared to be on the decline.
However, the early season performance of a few resilient A-Sun teams has changed the opinion of some. In fact, preseason favorite FGCU looks to haves some serious competition for the lone Atlantic Sun bid to the NCAA tournament.
In the preseason coaches’ poll and media poll, the Green and Blue claimed 7 of 8 and 25 of 26 first place votes, respectively. North Florida received each of the remaining first place votes, and it seems to have been warranted.
The Ospreys recently dismantled the Eagles by a score of 80-64. Backed by an impressive 12 3-pointers and 45448-percent shooting, the Jacksonville-based team proved it is a force to be reckoned with. The offensive outburst was not out of the ordinary for UNF. The Osprey’s currently rank 30th in the nation in points per game with 75.4, ahead of the likes of Kentucky, LSU and Utah. With an impressive win over Purdue and a two-point heartbreaker against Northwestern during their non-conference schedule, the Ospreys put the rest of A-Sun on notice. Their dominance has continued into conference play, as North Florida is the only remaining undefeated team in the A-Sun (6-0).
Also vying for the top spot in the Atlantic Sun is USC Upstate. After falling twice to the Eagles last season by a combined margin of merely 7 points, the Spartans are hungry to turn the tables. The ambitious group is hoping to be the third A-Sun team in three years to reach the NCAA tournament round of 32. Based on their performance thus far, that doesn’t seem far-fetched.
After 16 games, a 12-4 record, and a bevy of notable performances, they looked ready to dominate their A-Sun competition. Earlier in the season, the Spartans tiptoed into Atlanta to face off with Georgia Tech and escaped with a 59-54 victory. After snatching a win from an ACC opponent, Upstate hopped over to Maryland to take on the then-19th ranked Terrapins. Upstate held a halftime lead over the Big Ten Conference contender before ultimately falling in the closing minutes. The Spartans completed their tour of power conferences with a Saturday tilt against SEC opponent, Mississippi State. Ty Greene drained a game winner with 6.3 ticks left to lead his crew to a 53-51 triumph.
After touring the nation collecting wins against quality competition, USC Upstate should have returned to the “weak” Atlantic Sun and laid waste to the competition. Right?
Instead, the Spartans have struggled to keep their heads above .500. The culprit? That would be the rest of the “weak” A-Sun. First it was Lipscomb. The Bisons did just enough to hold off a late run from Upstate and come away with the win. Since then, Lipscomb has reeled off three more victories before consecutive losses to UNF and FGCU has dropped them to third in the conference.
After the heartbreaker against Lipscomb, Ty Greene led his team against Northern Kentucky. The Norse built a late lead and withstood the Upstate charge to cling to a 66-65 advantage as time expired.
The dubious streak would only continue as the Spartans hosted the Eagles. In what is becoming an alarming trend for Upstate, the Green and Blue built a lead late in the contest and – surprise, surprise—the Spartans couldn’t quite overcome the deficit.
Despite everything that has gone wrong in Spartanburg, Upstate still boasts the 31st ranked scoring defense in the nation. They are limiting opponents to a stifling 59.3 points per game. Paired with their 72 points scored per game, which ranks 77th in the country, there is reason to believe the Spartans could still threaten to win conference.
In fact, since falling to the Eagles, Upstate has defeated both Stetson and Jacksonville by a combined scoring margin of 37 points. The Spartans sit 4th in the conference at 3-3 and are in a solid position to threaten at the conference tournament in March.
Then there is FGCU, the team that started it all way back in 2013 with the Cinderella run to the round of 16. This season, Joe Dooley has the deepest and most athletic team in program history at his disposal. After flying out to a 8-1 start, including victories over Ohio, UC Santa Barbara and UMass, the Eagles have fallen back to earth. After tough stretch of games against powerful opponents left the troops limping, they’ve rebounded to go 3-1 in conference play.
Things are starting to look up again for FGCU. After suffering the defeat against UNF, they put the clamps on the JU Dolphins in a 29-point romp. Next up was the Spartans. Brett Comer and Julian DeBose were clutch late and all of a sudden, this Eagles team is on the rise.
Their ascension has continued in road and home wins over Kennesaw State and Lipscomb, respectively. The 16-point triumph over the Bison’s gave the Green and Blue sole possession of second place in the A-Sun, setting them up for a potential battle for first place in the A-Sun when they host UNF on February 25th.
With the conference tournament fast approaching, the A-Sun is a lot more unpredictable than most had anticipated. What is predictable? You can count on there being an A-Sun representative playing on the big stage this March, and they won’t go quietly.