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November 13, 2007

SCS.comHe was finally making his long awaited debut; it was the first step in turning a traditional football power into top notch basketball program; O.J. Mayo was taking the court with the Trojans for the first time. Mayo chose to take his talents west so he could someday be cited as the reason USC is in the upper echelon of the college basketball world. Mercer was chosen to be nothing more than an answer in USC and O.J. Mayo trivia, however, this might be a trivia question that Trojan fans will want to soon forget. Apparently the Bears were not too impressed with the Trojans as they walked away from Los Angeles with a 15 point win and ultimately, pardon the pun, spoiled the Mayo.

Mercerís giant upset came just days after Gardner-Webb dominated the early season headlines thanks to becoming the first mid-major squad to defeat Kentucky in almost six years. The Runniní Bulldogs opened the season at Rupp Arena, one of the countryís most storied venues. Gardner-Webb wasted no time racing off to a 16-0 start while not looking back and allowing the Wildcats back into the game. The pair of Atlantic Sun upsets sets the stage for a potential multiple bid season for a conference that has caused headaches for opponents in the past opening rounds of the NCAA Tournament.

This may sound crazy on the surface, but both teams knocked off ranked opponents from arguably two of the top three conferences in the country, the SEC and Pac 10, the Big East being the third in this group. By the way, fellow conference member Belmont tipped the Big Eastís Cincinnati last week as well. Although not at the level of the Cats and Trojans, road wins against Big East teams never look shoddy. Now back to Mercer and Gardner-Webb reaching that proverbial bubble. The Pac 10 and SEC are conferences that could very well have as many as eight or nine teams hoping for postseason berths when Selection Sunday arrives. Obviously not all of these teams will receive invitations, but it is getting in the thick of the conversation with the bubble teams from major conferences that matters. The next step is getting selected.

Last year if you recall, the Big East was possibly the nationís premiere conference. Syracuse found itself squarely on the bubble after a stellar final few weeks of the season. Joining the Cuse on the bubble was Colonial Athletic Association member Drexel. Early in the season, Drexel defeated the Orange in the Carrier Dome, quite similar to the impressive road victories courtesy of Mercer and Gardner-Webb. Syracuse has a portfolio that looked more impressive than several at-large selections as well as Drexel, who was also left to compete in the National Invitational Tournament. Many analysts and fans look back and almost treat games played before New Years as exhibitions. But it could easily be argued that this early season non-conference duel ended up costing Jim Boeheimís squad another tournament appearance. Basically the committee would have had trouble justifying selecting Syracuse and leaving a fellow bubble-mate that defeated them on the road without a berth. As a result, that one single game combined with a few bad losses by Drexel left both teams dejected as the pairings were unveiled.

How does this all tie back into the Atlantic Sun receiving multiple postseason berths? Simple, should Mercer or Gardner-Webb continue their very early success and stumble in the conference tournament, they may find themselves on the bubble alongside middle of the pack SEC and Pac 10 teams, perhaps even Kentucky and USC. An even better situation for the aforementioned Atlantic Sun teams would be for the Trojans and Wildcats to right their ships as expected and finish in the top halves of their respective conferences. So when the selection committee is faced with the unenviable task of choosing a 25 win Mercer team or a 19 win California team, the USC road win could very well nudge the Bears right into the NCAA Tournament. The same situation applies to Gardner-Webb and hypothetical SEC hopefuls such as Alabama, Auburn, and Georgia.

It is obvious that one win alone will not separate either squad from any team with a winning record from a power conference. Fortunately both Mercer and Gardner-Webb will have opportunities to prove these early November wins were not a fluke. Mercer gets its shot versus Alabama, Boston College, and Auburn. Gardner-Webb will look to continue the path that propelled Butler to a memorable season just a year ago at the preseason NIT. The Runniní Bulldogs still get to face Connecticut twice, Clemson, Tulane, and perhaps even find themselves playing Memphis at Madison Square Garden.

This may seem like an unusual path to gathering wins, but a necessary one, for either team to obtain the quality wins that could prove oh so fruitful in March. And do not count either of the Atlantic Sun media darlings out either. Mercer showed it has the athletes to play with one of the top players in the country. After witnessing O.J. Mayo dropping 32 points on them, they will not be in awe of any player they face for the rest of the season. Gardner-Webbís remaining opponents seem a bit more daunting. But a win in one of the Connecticut games, as well as one over Tulane or Clemson combined with a respectable showing versus Memphis, and lookout, we have the makings of a bubble team that will warrant great consideration. Obviously this is all contingent that both teams survive the Atlantic Sun regular season and finish towards the top of the standings.

It is unlikely that either team beats the majority of its remaining major conference competition, but neither was given much of a chance heading into Rupp or Galen, and both left with as convincing a victory as any team in the country could expect. This whole scenario may seem far-fetched and it probably is, but it is definitely worth paying attention to over the first few weeks of the season. As we all know, teams from smaller conferences emerge as bracket-busters each season, so why can we not expect the Atlantic Sun to provide two of these teams. Only time will tell.

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