Mercer breaks tradition with CIT championship

sports@macon.comMarch 31, 2012 

There are scores of words that can be associated with Mercer athletics.

“Championship” isn’t necessarily one of them.

Until now.

Considering the general history of sports at Mercer, few would have thought that one of the least successful, but improving, athletics programs in the conference would have the first men’s basketball team in the A-Sun to win a postseason tournament.

But that’s what happened with a huge performance in the tournament championship. Stuff like this is why we love sports, and why hotels keep cropping up in Las Vegas. Who would have bet on something like this?

For those who don’t define good basketball as a quality dunk, Wednesday’s win wasn’t necessarily all that surprising.

When the Bears turned a six-point deficit into a three-point win, anybody who has watched them this season was hardly fazed. And Mercer showed why, displaying impressive consistency, chemistry, confidence and teamwork. It has been that way all season.

More impressive is that the Bears did it in a fabulous basketball environment against a quality basketball program. Utah State has been to 20 NCAA tournaments, 18 more than Mercer. And the newbies to postseason played like postseason veterans in the face of one of the top student cheering sections in the nation.

This Mercer team also blocked the program and athletics history from its mind. It didn’t play like a program that has only seven 20-win seasons in 100-plus years of basketball. It didn’t play like a program that hasn’t had consecutive winning seasons since the mid-1990s, with a pair of 15-14 marks.

This season’s coachspeak hasn’t just been coachspeak. Mercer had a legitimately good basketball team, one that would have been a tough out in the NCAA tournament, had the cards fallen in that direction.

Nationally, the CIT title barely registered. Certainly Mercer fans, even the ones who follow sports, didn’t know much about the CIT before two weeks ago.

Mercer won the overlooked tournament and did so on a far-flung cable network, but the key words in that clause are “Mercer won.” What the team does afterward will tell us how big it was, either the start of something or a fluke.

That leads us to another word to associate with Mercer athletics: finally.

The success didn’t necessarily register all that much locally. Seats opened on the bandwagon after the team’s A-Sun tournament semifinal loss to Florida Gulf Coast, and people sort of yawned at the CIT.

But winning the CIT sets the table, putting the Bears on a higher level in basketball circles, and Mercer can be counted among the top 75 or 80 teams in the country. Considering where Mercer has been -- like, say, in the bottom 75 or 80 teams in the country -- that’s pretty big.

Mercer will enter the 2012-13 season as one of the top two favorites in the conference, having ridden the backs of sophomores this season.

A potential roadblock is the rising stock of head coach Bob Hoffman. It was good news that Tulsa hired Danny Manning a few days ago, since Hoffman had been mentioned for that job. There are other jobs still open that will fit Hoffman. But it’s not automatic any more that Hoffman would take a better job just yet, not that his eyes and ears naturally aren’t open.

If Mercer performs near expectations the next season or two, Hoffman’s possibilities grow. But his program is clearly headed upward, he takes home one of the largest paychecks in the A-Sun, and Mercer is poised to be one of those mid-majors people will talk about.

In a good way, a really good way. Finally. A championship will do that.

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