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NCAA Basketball March Madness

Atlantic Sun Championship: Can Seniors Lead Mercer To First NCAA Tournament Since 1985?

Atlantic Sun Conference Tournament Championship Game

Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports

It will be a battle of recent success versus past success in the Atlantic Sun Conference Tournament Championship Game on Sunday. The No. 1 seed Florida Gulf Coast Eagles (22-11) will be looking to make another appearance in the NCAA Tournament after their incredible run to the Sweet 16 last season as a No. 15 seed. The No. 2 seed Mercer Bears (25-8) have not made the tournament since 1985 when they fell in the first round.

Mercer is one of the few teams in the country to have five seniors in their starting lineup; four of them have been regular starters since their sophomore seasons. They are led by 6-foot-4 guard Langston Hall who just recently surpassed the 1,500-point mark for his career. Hall leads the team with 14.7 points per game while playing nearly 32 minutes per contest.

A weakness for Mercer that could be exploited is their lack of size. Senior Daniel Coursey stands 6-foot-10, but he is the only one who plays regular minutes taller than 6-foot-6. Ironically, 6-foot-6 forward Bud Thomas leads the team in rebounding with almost seven per game.

Mercer had some pretty tough road tests which gave them mixed results during the non-conference season. Losses were expected when the Bears played at Texas, though they only lost by three, and at Oklahoma, but there were some nice surprises including a triple-overtime win at Valparaiso and a three-point upset at Ole Miss.

Florida Gulf Coast’s record may look at little worse than what you’d expect from a team who returned four starters from the year before. A coaching change and a tough non-conference schedule would be key contributors to that. The Eagles went on the road to face teams like Nebraska, NC State, Iona, South Florida and Mississippi State to prepare for another deep run in March.

They are very balanced scoring-wise with three players averaging 14 or more points per game in senior Chase Fieler (14.2) and juniors Brett Comer (13.9) and Bernard Thompson (15.1). Florida Gulf Coast also struggles with size in their primary players with their tallest starter standing at 6-foot-9 in junior Eric McKnight who missed the first 12 games of the season.

The team to win this game will be the one that can keep their big man out of foul trouble. When the teams met in January, Florida Gulf Coast finished with three starters with at least four fouls; Comer fouled out while Fieler and Thompson each had four. That foul trouble allowed room for Daniel Coursey of Mercer to clean up the glass with 12 rebounds to lead the Bears to victory. FGCU shot just six percent from behind the arc.

The matchup in February was almost a carbon copy of the first one, but this time it was Coursey who sat on the bench in foul trouble opening up space for 6-foot-6 junior Jamail Jones to grab a career-high 13 rebounds for FGCU who outrebounded Mercer by 19 in the Eagles’ win.

This should be another classic matchup between these two teams that have met in the two previous Atlantic Sun tournaments with Florida Gulf Coast winning both of those matchups including the championship game last season. FGCU happened to be on the road for those games — this time they will host. Will Mercer’s seniors get their revenge on the team that has ended their season two years running or will Florida Gulf Coast get a chance to repeat last year’s success?

The Atlantic Sun Conference Championship Game will be held on Sunday, Mar. 9 at 2:00 p.m. ET at the Alico Arena in Fort Myers, FL; the game can be seen nationally on ESPN2.

Matthew Evans is a soccer writer for RantSports.com, “Like” him on Facebook, Follow him on Twitter, or add him to your network on Google