|The (Atlantic) Sun also rises: Tiny conference sticks it to the big boys|
|Written by Admin|
|Monday, 12 November 2007 12:15|
The little-known league spread over five Southeastern states surely had its best week ever, knocking off three major schools in an amazing four-day period.
Gardner-Webb got the ball rolling, so to speak, with its shocking 16-point win at then-No. 20 Kentucky last Wednesday. Belmont followed up two nights later with an 11-point win at Cincinnati. Then came Saturday's stunner: Mercer bumped off then-No. 18 Southern Cal and its heralded freshman, O.J. Mayo, by 15 points.
Gardner-Webb? Belmont? Mercer?
Who are these guys anyway?
``Most of the time, all the efforts of our folks, all the stuff they are working on, don't get the spotlight they may necessarily deserve,'' said Ted Gumbart, the A-Sun's commissioner. ``When we do get a chance to grab it, it's very satisfying.''
For those who may not know - and that would be just about everyone - the Atlantic Sun is a 12-team conference with members in Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, North Carolina and South Carolina. Formerly known as the Trans-America Athletic Conference, it doesn't even qualify as a so-called mid-major.
Low-major is more like it, though it may be time for a promotion.
``Everyone dreams of playing in the BCS-type conferences. That's normal,'' Mercer coach Mark Slonaker said by telephone Monday morning from the school's Macon, Ga., campus. ``What we've got to do is be diligent and find the type of kids who realize it's not going to happen there and they've got a better opportunity here.''
The A-Sun, once comprised heavily of transfers and junior-college signees, has done a better job in recent years of luring second-tier prospects from the high school level. Those kids have a chance to develop over four years - after all, the NBA ain't exactly knockin' - and provide the sort of continuity that not even the big boys can't match.
For instance, Mercer sophomore James Florence, who scored 30 points against Mayo and the Trojans, was a prep star in suburban Atlanta. The 6-foot-1 guard was recruited by Tulane and got a sniff from a few bigger schools but ultimately decided to stay closer to home.
Macon is less than 100 miles south of Atlanta.
``We've got to get across that we've got a good product, a good situation, and we can provide a great college experience,'' Slonaker said. ``They might meet their wife here. They might meet the people in their wedding party here. We've got to give them the whole pitch.''
He chuckled at his recruiting methods, but it was no laughing matter for Kentucky, Cincinnati or USC. All three were blown out by a conference that went 0-35 against the six major conferences a year ago, and had not beaten a ranked team since Belmont's win over Missouri in December 2003.
``For me, it's about the credibility of the league,'' Slonaker said. ``We're striving to be somewhere in the middle. It's not realistic to be in the top six. That's not going to happen. But we're trying to move up as a conference. The only way to do that is to keep winning these type of games.''
The Atlantic Sun has been around since 1978, though it spent most of its history known as the TAAC. Detractors referred to it as the ``Ticky-TAAC.''
The conference gained a more flattering name six years ago but, like so many smaller leagues (and even some bigger ones), struggled to maintain a stable roster of teams. Schools such as Central Florida, College of Charleston and Georgia State have come and gone, leaving behind a mix of small, private institutions and larger public schools with relatively new athletic programs.
Jacksonville, Stetson and Lipscomb all have enrollments of fewer than 3,000. The biggest school is Kennesaw State, a recent addition from Atlanta's sprawling suburbs that has nearly 20,000 students.
The league doesn't sponsor football, which makes it even harder to get noticed. And there will be another membership change to deal with after this academic year when Gardner-Webb, the school in Boiling Springs, N.C., that stunned Big Blue, moves to the Big South. But at least the A-Sun has plenty of unique, entertaining nicknames, such as Camels (Campbell), Hatters (Stetson) and Ospreys (North Florida).
Gumbart is eager to take advantage of the A-Sun's moment in the sun, no matter how fleeting it may be.
``The coaches and players have made it happen on the floor,'' he said. ``Our job is to translate that into a little bit more of a lasting impression so A-Sun basketball rings a bell with folks.''
Mercer has a chance to make another big splash right away.
Coming off perhaps the most important win in school history, the Bears are hosting Alabama of the Southeastern Conference on Tuesday night, the first major-conference school to visit Mercer's new 3,200-seat campus arena.
These sort of games could become more common for mid- and low-level conferences, who are demanding higher guarantees to go on the road and finding that many major schools are reluctant to pay up.
Alabama agreed to a 2-for-1 deal with Mercer, which will visit Tuscaloosa the next two years. The Crimson Tide saves some money and boosts its recruiting base in middle Georgia, while Mercer gets the sort of game that will have its place rockin'.
``There's going to be tailgating. There's going to be bands,'' Slonaker said. ``The buzz on campus and the students' excitement about this game have been incredible. We don't have football here, so this is kind of like what the students at Georgia get to experience when Auburn comes to town for football.''
Well, not quite. After all, Mercer is a Baptist-affiliated university.
``We're a dry campus, so it may be a little different,'' Slonaker quipped. ``But you can bet there will be an adrenaline high there, if not necessarily an alcohol high.''
No need for the hard stuff when you've just had your best week ever.