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Atlantic Sun Preview: Expect a three-way battle at the top

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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ur conference preview series continues with the Atlantic Sun. Here's a look at the projected standings, three must-see games and the conference's three most intriguing storylines entering the new season.

Can Adnan Hodzic propel Lipscomb to the NCAA tournament?

If standout center Adnan Hodzic doesn't want his college career to end without leading Lipscomb to the NCAA tournament, next season is his last and perhaps best chance to end the drought.

Hodzic, the nation's leading scorer as a junior, led the Bisons to a share of the conference crown last season, but they flamed out in the first round of the Atlantic Sun tournament. The 6-foot-9 big man flirted with entering

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the NBA draft but opted to return to Lipscomb in hopes of finally winning the championship that has eluded him.

Lipscomb figures to have an opportunity to send Hodzic out in style because all five of its starters return. Complementing Hodzic's interior punch are high-scoring guards Josh Slater and Jordan Burgason, both sharp shooters from the perimeter who averaged 17.1 and

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12.8 points per game respectively.

Will East Tennessee State have its top players back?

East Tennessee State might have more returning talent than any team in the league, but the two-time defending Atlantic Sun tournament champs also face more question marks than fellow contenders Lipscomb and Belmont.

Last season's leading scorer forward Tommy Hubbard was suspended in April after an altercation with his girlfriend that resulted in her laptop computer being destroyed. And all-conference guard Mike Smith is still recovering from a stress fracture in his leg that cost him all but four games last season.

East Tennessee State coach Murray Bartow told the Johnson City Press last month that Smith's rehab is going smoothly and that he expects Hubbard to be reinstated in the fall. If both return to their previous form and guards Justin Tubbs and Micah Williams perform as well as they did last year in Smith's absence, the Bucs have a great chance to win the conference and return to the NCAA tournament.

How will Ian Clark and Belmont handle higher expectations?

Having graduated the core of a team that made back-to-back NCAA tournaments the previous two seasons, Belmont surprised its foes last season by earning a share of the regular season Atlantic Sun crown. The Bruins won't sneak up on anyone next season, however, considering every rotation player except forward Keaton Belcher is expected to return.

Expected to shoulder the greatest burden will be sophomore guard Ian Clark, a once unheralded recruit who averaged 14.9 points per game as a freshman and shot 40.2 percent from three-point range. Clark beat out Kennesaw State's Markieth Cummings for the Atlantic Sun's freshman of the year award last season and became the first freshman to lead Belmont in scoring in the school's NCAA era.

Complementing Clark are big men Mick Hedgepeth and Scott Saunders, both back-to-the-basket scorers capable of making teams pay for extending their defense to stop Belmont's perimeter shooters. It's a strong enough nucleus that Belmont will be expected to contend for another conference title and challenge East Tennessee State and Lipscomb for an NCAA tournament berth.

More Conference Previews:

ACC: It's banner or bust this season for Duke, Five ACC storylines to watch, ESPN's Jay Bilas scouts the ACC, 15 must-see ACC games, Q&A with Wake Forest freshman Carson Desrosiers

America East: Will Boston University's recruiting pay off?

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