For 12 years the Belmont Bruins ruled the Atlantic Sun conference with six regular season titles and five tournament titles. The Bruins are gone to the Ohio Valley leaving the Atlantic Sun up for grabs, who will step up and take the top spot?
Two of the favorites are the Mercer Bears and University of South Carolina-Upstate Spartans. Mercer is coming off a season that saw the Bears win 27 games and capture the CollegeInsider.com Tournament championship. USC-Upstate enters their 2nd season as a fully post-season eligible division 1 program after a season that saw the Spartans rack up 21 victories and a 2nd round trip to the CIT tournament that Mercer won.
Mercer is trying to end a 27-year drought and win its first Atlantic Sun since 1985, reaching the finals would give the Bears just their 4th appearance in a title game since 1995. Bob Hoffman returns four starters (all juniors) to a roster that boasts just two seniors.
The Bears are led by guard Langston Hall and forward Jakob Gollon. The 6-4 Hall averaged 11.4 points and 4.2 assists last season including a 16-point 6-rebound effort in the CIT finals victory over Utah State which earned him tournament MVP honors. Gollon is a 6-6 forward that led the Bears in rebounding last season at 5.9 per game.
Hall and the now post-season experienced Bears have been a nearly unanimous choice to take home the A-Sun tournament title, that doesn’t necessarily mean the league will be a runaway. Just as unanimously is the team that has been picked to finish second to Mercer, the USC-Upstate Spartans.
Since joining the A-Sun in 2007 the Spartans had struggled to adjust to life as a division 1 program not winning more than seven games in a season, that is until last year.
The Spartans experienced a 16-win turnaround in 2011-13 winning 21 games and earning their first post-season berth. Eddie Payne’s squad was once again led by junior swingman Torrey Craigwho earned Newcomer of the Year honors in his first year then followed
it up with a sophomore season that saw him average 16.7 points and 7.7 rebounds, which earned him the Atlantic Sun Player of the Year honors.
What led to such a big difference in the win column? According to Craig, defense. “Defense is our number one priority, as the year went on we got better with our rotations, traps and pressures.” He’s right, from Jan. 4 through the end of the season USC-Upstate held opponents to just 67 points per game.
Heading into this year Craig says the team has one goal, “we all want to win the A-Sun championship.”
With Belmont out of the picture the goal of reaching the NCAAs is even more reachable for everyone.
For Craig and the Spartans, achieving that goal, “starts with defense, as long as we are aggressive and continue to pressure the ball and make it hard for guys to get catches it can play a major factor in winning a championship or getting to the NCAA Tournament.”
All teams have peaks and valleys during any given season. Tough opponents, injuries, conference road games, but for Craig the biggest obstacle in delivering USC-Upstate its first NCAA Tournament berth is team chemistry.
“We have different players that have to adjust and play different roles and accept their roles. If we get it clicking, team chemistry will be the biggest obstacle.”
Mercer might beg to differ a little, which will make the race between these two teams to the Atlantic Sun penthouse so fun to watch.