Atlantic Sun Preview: Which team will capitalize on Belmont’s departure?

Yahoo! Sports is breaking down each league for the upcoming college basketball season working backward from No. 31 to No. 1. Here's a look at our No. 26 league, the Atlantic Sun.

In the past seven seasons, Belmont has won or shared the Atlantic Sun title four times, made five NCAA tournament appearances and finished no worse than second in the regular season standings.

Such dominance raises the following question: How will the league fill the void now that the Bruins are off to the Ohio Valley Conference?

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Nobody appears ready to inherit the role of the Atlantic Sun's flagship program from Belmont, but there are three or four teams capable of succeeding the Bruins as league champs next spring. In particular, Mercer, Florida Gulf Coast and South Carolina Upstate have enough returning talent to challenge for the league crown.

The slim favorite next season is probably Mercer, which returns four starters from a 27-win team that finished tied for second in the Atlantic Sun last season and won the CIT tournament. Guard Langston Hall is a player of the year candidate in the league and forward Daniel Coursey is the conference's premier shot blocker.

If Mercer falls short of its league title aspirations, Division I newcomers USC Upstate or Florida Gulf Coast could be in position to claim their first Atlantic Sun championship. The Spartans boast reigning league player of the year, Torrey Craig, and an improving supporting cast, while the Eagles feature a more balanced attack headlined by returning guard Sherwood Brown and Iowa State transfer Eric McKnight.

Best shooter: Jerron Granberry, North Florida
Best playmaker: Russell Powell, Jacksonville
Best defender: Daniel Coursey, Mercer
Coach on the rise: Andy Enfield, Florida Gulf Coast
Coach on the hot seat: Scott Sanderson, Lipscomb
Three must-see games: 1. Miami at Florida Gulf Coast, Nov. 13 (Marquee home opener for the Eagles); 2. Mercer at Georgia, Dec. 18 (The Bears beat Georgia Tech last year. Can they do it to Georgia?); 3. VCU at East Tennessee State, Jan. 2 (Big coup for the Bucs getting VCU at home)


New coaches: None
Regular-season winner last season: Belmont
Tourney winner last season: Belmont
League RPI rank in each of past 3 seasons: 2011-12: 20th; 2010-11: 17th, 2009-10: 25th
Last NCAA tourney win by a league team: 2001, then-member Georgia State as a No. 11 seed in first round

More conference previews from Yahoo! Sports:

Big South (No. 27): Unwanted in high school, guards Saah Nimley and Arlon Harper are now powering Charleston Southern's resurgence; Coastal Carolina hopes home is sweet this March

Southland Conference (No. 28): Pat Knight's epic rant had unintended benefits for Lamar; Oral Roberts assumes the role of instant favorite in its new league


America East (No. 29): Stony Brook basketball draws inspiration from baseball team's College World Series run; Early departures drain league of some of its top talent

MEAC (No. 30): Rush of publicity from Missouri win has long-lasting impact at Norfolk State; Savannah State seeks NCAA bid to cap remarkable turnaround

SWAC (No. 31): Mike Davis prefers challenge of winning at Texas Southern to torture of taking a year off; Balanced league will crown new champ this year

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