Commentary

A-Sun's Mercer, Belmont and Gardner-Webb topple giants

Originally Published: November 14, 2007
By Kyle Whelliston | Special to ESPN.com

Let it forever be remembered that for one extended holiday weekend in November 2007, the Atlantic Sun Conference -- a 29-year-old league with nary an NCAA win among its current 12-school membership -- was perfect against half of the NCAA's big six. When the real Atlantic sun broke over the seaboard on Tuesday morning, the conference was a combined 3-0 against the Big East, the SEC and the Pac-10.

"We don't have a frame of reference for any of this," said league commissioner Ted Gumbart, still basking in the glow of his league's recent nonconference wins. "The conference is simply doing things it's never done before. We've had big wins in the past, but the biggest thing about this is how they've been layered on top of each other in such a short time."

James Florence
Rick SchmittMercer's James Florence nearly matched superstar freshman O.J. Mayo point-for-point in the upset win.

The first layer was laid down Nov. 7 by the Gardner-Webb Runnin' Bulldogs with a stunning 84-68 win on Kentucky's home floor, denying the No. 20 Wildcats a trip to New York in the Coaches vs. Cancer tourney. Over the weekend, the dominoes kept falling. Mercer toppled No. 18 USC in a 91-86 shocker, and the two-time league champion Belmont Bruins got in on the A-Sun fun, ruining Cincinnati's home opener at the Peggy Cronin Classic with an 86-75 upset.

"This is the best week in the conference's history, I'd imagine," said 21-year Bruins coach Rick Byrd, whose team defeated a school with nearly five times the athletic budget as Belmont's. "I know I haven't seen anything like it in my time here."

Unfamiliarity with the national spotlight hasn't stopped the A-Sun's road warriors from handling their newfound success with aplomb, acting almost as if they've been there and done that. After dousing Kentucky's comeback attempts, Gardner-Webb players had a little trouble containing themselves after the buzzer sounded, but the celebration was considerably muted and classy considering the accomplishment. No mass jersey-popping or dancing on the "UK" center-court logo.

"When there were two minutes left, I turned to our bench," Gardner-Webb coach Rick Scruggs said. "I told my players, 'When this thing's over, handle yourselves like you've won here before.' I wanted to respect the Kentucky players, coaches and fans, so I told our guys to carry themselves like champions."

The giant-killers from Macon, Ga., showed similar poise and restraint three days later.

"I thought that a big key for us was that when [USC was] making their comeback against us, we stayed focused," Mercer coach Mark Slonaker said. "We didn't slouch or feel sorry for ourselves when they scored. We just grabbed the ball out of the net and got on with it. Then when we won, we didn't celebrate much on the floor. We knew that they had been banged up in the preseason and we didn't want to show them up.

"But when we got into the locker room, yeah, we cut loose then."

"Cutting loose" might also be an apt description of the dominant style of play in the conference during its three-decade history as the TAAC and the Atlantic Sun. USC and Cincinnati found out what A-Sun fans have known for years: The league is fast, fun and furious, with high possession counts and even higher scores. The Trojans trailed wire-to-wire against Mercer on Saturday, often finding themselves struggling to play catch-up.

We just hope that this past week has left a positive impression on fans around the country. We hope that when people think of the A-Sun, they think of a league that's fun to watch, with teams that can put up 96 points on a given night. We want people to remember that our teams can go out on the road and beat a nationally ranked power like USC or Kentucky.

--Ted Gumbart

"USC trying to run with Mercer, I like that description," Slonaker said with a laugh. "This is a conference with a lot of guards. We don't really have access to the kind of size that teams like USC has access to. So we definitely prefer to have the tempo going that way … as fast as possible."

And those same fans who watch Atlantic Sun basketball are acutely aware that these upset specials aren't necessarily the best teams the league has to offer.

Slonaker's squad is tabbed to contend, mostly thanks to 6-foot-6 sophomore phenom and reigning rookie of the year James Florence (30 points vs. USC), but there are plenty of questions elsewhere on the Mercer roster. Belmont is still searching for replacements for the skilled size that marked their back-to-back conference championship teams. Gardner-Webb, for its part, had been figured to finish mid-table at best coming off a 9-20 season and was projected to simply play out the A-Sun string in its final season before joining the Big South next season.

"We were picked eighth, ninth or 10th, depending on who you talk to," Scruggs said of the preseason polls. "So what does that say about our conference if a team like ours can go in and beat Kentucky?"

Indeed, the presumptive league favorites -- teams like East Tennessee State and Jacksonville -- haven't been heard from yet.

"I don't know, maybe it says that the people who picked the league aren't quite so smart," said ETSU head coach Murray Bartow, whose Buccaneers were selected by the coaches and media as preseason A-Sun favorites. "But seriously, though, this tells you a lot about the parity in our league, and about the parity in college basketball in general. There are a lot of good players out there, a lot of good coaches, a lot of teams that are capable of going on the road and beating the so-called higher-major schools."

But this is early November, and the Atlantic Sun still has at least 19 games against the SEC, Big East and Pac-10, the three power leagues it took its first games from. Belmont's Byrd, a coach Scruggs refers to as "the godfather" of the Atlantic Sun, is keeping the league's breakthrough week in perspective.

"The recognition for the league has been great, all the national commentators saying, 'Give it up for the A-Sun,'" Byrd said. "This will help us in recruiting, help us get better players. But what's more important is how we play as a league for the rest of the year, how we back it up, and then how the Atlantic Sun performs in the NCAA Tournament."

This is a league that hasn't won more than a third of its nonconference games since 2002-03 and includes four transitional Division I members that aren't eligible for the national postseason yet, so the lightning will likely exit the bottle sooner rather than later. But for now, the little league that could is basking in the warm glow of its positive PR, hoping against hope that the sun never goes down on its basketball party.

"It's up to our schools, coaches and players to make this last as long as possible," Gumbart said. "But we just hope that this past week has left a positive impression on fans around the country. We hope that when people think of the A-Sun, they think of a league that's fun to watch, with teams that can put up 96 points on a given night. We want people to remember that our teams can go out on the road and beat a nationally ranked power like USC or Kentucky.

"We just want people outside our geographical area to think, 'Hey, those guys are good.'"

Kyle Whelliston is the national mid-major reporter for Basketball Times and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

Kyle Whelliston

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
Kyle Whelliston has contributed to ESPN.com's college basketball coverage since 2005. He covers mid-major programs for Basketball Times magazine, and will have a basketball travelogue of the 2008-09 season published next summer. Whelliston also founded midmajority.com and statistical database site Basketball State (bbstate.com).