As normal as the A-Sun men’s basketball standings look, something is out of place.
Sure, another day caused another logjam. Less than three games separate seven teams, and there’s only a game between the top five teams.
The anomaly in all that is Jacksonville, which is nowhere to be found among those leading teams.
And that just means Monday’s showdown between Jacksonville and Mercer at the University Center is likely to be as intense, chippy, rugged and close as the average Jacksonville-Mercer battle.
Throw in the fact that Mercer (14-7, 6-2) is now a co-leader in the A-Sun with Belmont, and the Dolphins will be primed.
Mercer guard Langston Hall has played Jacksonville twice and knows what tends to happen when the Bears and Dolphins hook up.
“Yeah,” he said with a knowing smile. “That’s right. But we just have to come out and play hard and execute.”
Only six times in the past 20 meetings has the game been decided by double figures, and there have been four overtime games in the span with a possession being the difference seven times.
And the average score in the past 20 games? Mercer 76, Jacksonville 74.2.
The Bears are a win away from matching last season’s win total, and they have their best record after 21 games since the regular-season championship team of 2002-03, which was 16-5 en route to a 23-6 year.
Mercer also started off 6-2 in conference play in 2004-05 but then lost three straight. The Bears went 14-2 in A-Sun play in 2002-03, winning their final nine regular-season conference meetings.
The Dolphins, picked to finish third by the media and fourth by the coaches, are 4-15 overall and 2-6 in conference play, ahead of only Kennesaw State (3-17, 0-8) in the standings.
But the Dolphins bring some momentum to town. They’ve won two straight, beating USC Upstate 77-74 a week ago and Kennesaw State 66-50 on Saturday.
Last Monday’s win for Jacksonville broke a 13-game losing streak, which started back Nov. 25 with a 107-62 loss at Florida and included an 80-56 loss to rival North Florida.
Preseason all-conference pick Delwan Graham had his fourth double-double of the season Saturday, and the Dolphins held the Owls to their second-lowest point total of the season.
Graham is one of four players on the Jacksonville roster from Georgia, averaging 10.4 points and seven rebounds coming off the bench. Russell Powell (Newnan) and Aloys Cabell (Mays) start and team for 16.6 points per game, and Chris Davis (Stockbridge) chips in 4.5 points and 2.3 rebounds in reserve.
“They’ve got some Georgia kids,” Mercer head coach Bob Hoffman said. “(Head coach) Cliff Warren does as good a job as anybody in this league about turning programs around. They’ve had great seasons, and I’m sure he’ll have them ready.”
Warren is four wins from 100 at Jacksonville and 11 from tying the mark for most wins in school history. But the Dolphins’ streak of five straight winning seasons is all but over, with 10 regular-season games remaining and work to be done to qualify for the A-Sun tournament.
Then again, Jacksonville started slowly from 2007-10 and finished strong: 3-8 to 18-13, 2-7 to 18-14 and 1-7 to 20-14.
All of which makes the Dolphins dangerous, especially with the chance to knock off a team atop that standings.
“We know there’s going to be a bull’s-eye on our back,” said Hall, who has started every game since arriving at Mercer. “We’ve just got to take it.”
Sitting atop the conference standings is a rare position for Mercer.
“They’re excited,” Hoffman said. “We’re one game from being halfway through (the conference schedule), and we’re tied for the lead. It doesn’t mean anything’s done, but what it does mean is we’re right there.
“This gives you a little more bounce in your step.”
Jacksonville at Mercer
7 p.m., Monday