One day, Ted Gumbart was just the commissioner of a rather anonymous conference. Now, Gumbart's cell phone rings off the hook with yet another media outlet wanting to find out about the Atlantic Sun Conference.
"A lot of people are curious about who we are and that's a good thing," Gumbart said.
The Atlantic Sun has been in operation for 30 years, known as the Trans America Athletic Conference until six years ago, but few had ever heard of it until the opening days of this college basketball season when Gardner-Webb and Mercer pulled off major upsets on the road. Gardner-Webb rolled to an 84-68 win at No. 20 Kentucky on Nov. 7, and Mercer then posted a 96-81 win at No. 18 Southern California three days later to spoil the highly touted O.J. Mayo's college debut.
Lost amongst those victories over ranked teams was Belmont's 86-75 win at Cincinnati on Nov. 9. Belmont happened to be the last Atlantic Sun school to be a ranked team, knocking off Missouri in 2003.
"We felt the conference was very strong this year with a lot of returning players, but I don't think anybody could have predicted two wins over ranked teams in the same week and then another big road win over a Big East school by Belmont," Gumbart said. "In your wildest dreams, you wouldn't expect that to happen. However, it's a great thing for our conference. It's gotten us the type of exposure early in the season that we would never expect to get otherwise.
"Now, we want to keep the momentum rolling. Hopefully, all of our teams will continue to play well in non-conference play. We would like to show that we play pretty good basketball in the Atlantic Sun Conference."
The Atlantic Sun has gone just 3-27 in the NCAA Tournament, though Georgia State and Lefty Driesell knocked off Wisconsin in overtime in the first round in 2001. The only team ever to get an at-large bid was the College of Charleston in 1994. Georgia State and Charleston are no longer in the Atlantic Sun. In fact, only the most hardcore fan could name the conference's 12 schools: Belmont, Campbell, East Tennessee State, Florida Gulf Coast, Gardner-Webb, Jacksonville, Kennesaw State, Lipscomb, Mercer, North Florida, South Carolina-Upstate and Stetson.
However, Gardner-Webb certainly got the Atlantic Sun noticed with the win at Kentucky, especially after the Bulldogs were just 9-21 last season. Gardner-Webb scored the game's first 14 points and never trailed as Grayson Flittner scored a game-high 22 points.
"A lot of people will think this is a misprint, but I hope not," Gardner-Webb coach Rick Scruggs said after the game."
"We know this game is going to put us on the map," Flittner said. "It's something I'm going to tell my grandkids about years from now. I'll never forget this."
"I don't there is another school in the country or arena in the county that symbolizes college basketball more than Kentucky and Rupp Arena," Gumbart said. "For one of our schools to go there and win is something very special."
While Mercer's win at USC might not have gotten as much notice, it was just as impressive as guard James Florence had 30 points and the Bears shot 59 percent from the floor.
"We had a vibe, we had a good feel and we caught them at the right time," Mercer coach Mark Slonaker told the Macon Telegraph.
"There's no way to describe it," Florence said.
Indeed, the Atlantic Sun's early success has been indescribable.
"You only put five guys on the floor at a time, which is the great thing about basketball," Gumbart said. "It's the type of sport where upsets can happen and everyone has a chance to win."
Mayo is most the ballyhooed of the impressive list of freshmen this season. While he scored 32 against Mercer, it was far from a dominant outing as he made just 12 of 27 shots from the field, including four of 11 from three-point range, and had eight turnovers while playing the entire 40 minutes.
Mayo's point total was cut in half to 16 in his second game, a 74-47 win at The Citadel. Mayo was 6-for-12 from the floor in that game but still turned the ball over five times in 40 minutes.
Meanwhile, Indiana's Eric Gordon and Kansas State's Michael Beasley has much more impressive starts. Gordon had 33 points in the Hoosiers' 99-79 win over Chattanooga, making nine of 15 field goal attempts, including seven of 11 from behind the arc, to go with six rebounds and four assists in 33 minutes. That was the most points by an Indiana player in his debut since George McGinnis scored 26 against Eastern Michigan in 1970.
"I thought I played pretty good," Gordon said in quite the understatement. "I tried to step up in different situations."
Indiana coach Kelvin Sampson was more impressed.
"He put us on his back," Sampson said.
Beasley had 32 points and a school-record 24 rebounds in 31 minutes a 94-63 win over Sacramento State in the opener, then 30 points and 14 rebounds in 29 minutes before fouling out in a 76-66 victory over Pittsburg State.
UCLA's Kevin Love came within two rebounds of posting double-doubles in each of his first three games. He debuted with 22 points and 13 rebounds in 28 minutes of the 69-48 win over Portland State then had 21 points and nine rebounds in 27 minutes in an 83-52 victory over Youngstown State and 19 points and nine rebounds in 26 minutes of a 76-41 rout of Cal State San Bernardino.
Memphis point guard Derrick Rose has also shown why he, too, will likely be in the NBA next season. He had 17 points, six rebounds and five assists in 25 minutes in the season-opening 102-71 win over Tennessee-Martin, 21 points and five rebounds in 25 minutes of the 80-63 victory over Richmond and 17 points and five rebounds in 34 minutes of a 63-53 win over Oklahoma.
The most intriguing freshman to make his debut was Illinois walk-on guard Jeff Jordan, son of Michael. Jeff Jordan played three minutes in a 63-55 win over Northeastern to open the season, missing his only shot from the floor and committing one turnover.
There will be even more March Madness as the College Basketball Invitational makes it debut in March to give competition to the NIT. The CBI will be staged by the Princeton, N.J.-based Gazelle Group, which produces such early-season tournaments as the 2K Sports College Hoop Classic and the O'Reilly Auto Parts CBE Classic.
The CBI will have a 16-team field that will be balanced geographically over four regions. The two finalists will then meet in a best-of-three championship series on March 31, April 2 and April 4, ending the event the day before the Final Four begins.
Since the NCAA Tournament has 65 teams in its field and the NIT has a 32-team field, that means 113 teams will get the opportunity to participate in the postseason, just shy of one-tird of Division I.
Team to Watch
The inaugural Team to Watch, a weekly feature that be determined primarily by the Pomeroy College Basketball Ratings, is George Washington.
The Colonials certainly aren't an unknown as they've been to the NCAA Tournament each of the last two years and won the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament last March. Yet, despite being picked to finish in the middle of the A-10 pack this season following the loss of three starters from a 23-9 team, they are ranked No. 1 going into Friday's action after beating Mount St. Mary's 77-62 and Boston University 69-56.
Junior forward Rob Diggs has been leading the way for George Washington, with 21 points and six rebounds in 29 minutes against Mount St. Mary's and 20 points and 12 rebounds in 37 minutes against Boston U. He has also shot 70 percent (16 of 23) from the field, all this after adding 15 pounds of muscle in the offseason.
"He's able to finish plays and is a lot more explosive," George Washington coach Karl Hobbs said of Diggs, who averaged 10.5 points and 5.0 rebounds last season. "When he gets hit, he is able to get the 'and one' now, where last year, as soon as he got hit, he got knocked off his shot. It's helped him the most defensively. He's able to physically get around guys and box out."
John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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