So, we've got a little bit of a weird situation in the Atlantic Sun conference. Remember them? They're the conference responsible for Florida Gulf Coast, the darlings of the 2013 NCAA Tournament, and Mercer, who upset Duke in the 2014 NCAA Tournament. If you're looking for teams with NCAA Tournament upset potential, the A-Sun tends to bring it.
Sunday is the A-Sun conference final between Stetson and Florida Gulf Coast, Typically, this game's winner provides the first automatic NCAA Tournament bid of the season. If FGCU wins, hey, that's normal! They'll go to the tourney, and someone in your pool will pick them because they remember Dunk City. If Stetson wins, that's when things get weird.
Stetson is ineligible for national postseason play due to academic sanctions -- they reportedly missed the NCAA's requirement of a 930 Academic Progress Rate by a single point. So even if they win the tournament, they can't participate in the tourney. If they lose, the Atlantic Sun's automatic bid goes to regular season champ North Florida -- which lost in the semifinals to FGCU. So while the Ospreys have already lost, they've still got a chance.
Stetson shouldn't even be in the championship game. They went 10-21 in the regular season, and four of those wins weren't against Division I teams. Ken Pomeroy's log5 regression of the conference tournament gave the Hatters just a 0.7 percent chance at winning the tournament. But in March, crazy things happen.
The Hatters were double-digit underdogs in their first-round matchup against second-seeded NJIT. But they demolished the Highlanders, who shot 2-for-26 from three while Stetson's Derick Newton scored 28 points. The Hatters got a slightly easier semifinal matchup because 6-seed Lipscomb beat 3-seed Jacksonville, but still, they had to beat a better team on the road. They crushed the Bisons, winning 96-75.
If UNF had held their own, the drama would be over. As regular season champion, they could've won or lost the championship game and still made the tourney on account of their conference championship. Instead, they got walloped by FGCU, losing 89-56. Now, they're in the odd scenario of cheering as hard as they can for another team to win them a tourney bid.
The people who hate this the most? The Atlantic Sun conference. They've seen the benefits of sending a hot tournament champion to the NCAA's rather than the regular season champ -- both FGCU and Mercer were both the 2-seed in the conference when they made the conference look great with huge upset wins. Now they face the odd scenario of the team representing the conference in March Madness not even being in the building to cut down the nets.
it's a bit strange that the regular season champ gets to be next in line and not the championship game loser. But at least this way, the conference title game -- one of the league's rare nationally televised games -- is relevant.
Are the Hatters going to make it happen? Probably not. FGCU is a much better team. But Stetson did manage to beat FGCU 80-73 in their regular season finale, one of just four conference wins by the Hatters.
March is about miracles, and Stetson has already made a minor one happen. You have to be happy for them. The Hatters have never made the NCAA Tournament, and this is their first time in the A-Sun title game since 1994. They play in one of college basketball's least prestigious conferences, and they haven't been able to come close to winning it in 20 years.
After being ruled ineligible, the Hatters had every reason to pack it in and give up, with a technicality rendering their season meaningless. But instead, they fought, and maybe they'll be March's first Cinderella story.