NIT is a quality chance for Mercer to make a statement

Macon TelegraphMarch 17, 2013 

                Mercer was in a parade and then practice and then Bob Hoffman's living room on this celebrated day.

                It's also St. Patrick's Day.

                And within probably 90 seconds of seeing Mercer's first-round NIT opponent, Hoffman will start his inner hyperventilation and clenching and start thinking about cramming days worth of film and scouting into hours. Players will likely be unfocused in class on Monday, while Mercer folks work on travel issues and the staff prepares a game plan for an unfamiliar opponent – unless it's Florida State or Alabama – with all of one or two practices.

                Then, at tipoff, Mercer gets a chance to make a statement.

                If you've paid any attention to a bowl game – your team's or otherwise – played before Dec. 31, then muzzle it for the NIT, and to lesser extents, the CBI and CIT.

                Call 'em moneymakers or whatever, but people go and players play and everybody wants to end their season with a win. The NIT used to be the top tournament in college hoops, went through some rough spells, and now is really only an extension of the NCAA tournament.

                Instead of one 96-team tournament, the NCAA runs a 68-team and 32-team event, and campuses get to host some games along the way, which helps build the sport by helping to build programs.

                There's no doubt a faction of Mercer's fan base that's miffed with the Bears' title-game loss. And let's say the final week played out different and Mercer didn't get the NIT bid and instead went to, let's say, the CIT for a second year.

                Oh, the humanity. The hand-wringing, the muttering, the paranoia, the indignation.

                How dare they.

                If Mercer had made the CIT again, people should high-five and chest-bump and be happy that a program of Mercer's stature – and in the big picture over time, that's not a mighty stature – made a postseason tournament two years in a row.

                The recent jumpers onto Mercer's bandwagon can't seem to remember the history of the program.

                In the 100-plus seasons, it's cracked the 20-win mark eight times. Eight.

                In the 34 seasons of competition in full Division I and conference play, it's cracked the 20-win mark five times. Five.

                So in math, Mercer hits the magic number – which is, one must admit, easier with bigger schedules and now 347 Division I teams – once every seven years.

                And that's matched by the number of single-digit win seasons: eight.

                In those 34 seasons, the Bears have had more five more losing seasons than winning.

                Last season featured the first non-conference Division I postseason win in program history, and first of any kind since nipping LaGrange – yeah, that LaGrange – 84-80 in the first game of the 1972 NCAA College Division Tournament.

                So without saying "beggars can't be choosers" ...

                Now it's up to the Bears to take advantage of a huge chance to further enhance this improving program and reputation.

                The first-round game will be against a power-6 conference opponent. It could be against a program that won last year's NCAA tournament. They might play the 2002 champ in a later round if both win. They might play Larry Bird's old school, whose coach was later employed at both Georgia College and Mercer.

                The money is better in the NCAA tournament, and the exposure is a mixed bag: you get some, but it's in passing unless you pull off the big upset or take a high seed down to the wire, as Belmont did. Get taken down by 37 points, as expected, and you're heading home after a great overall experience and predictable pounding.

                But in the NIT, the field is a little more balanced. Most of the teams were on the NCAA bubble going into the final week of conference tournaments, and others had an off day in their conference tournament after winning the regular-season championship.

                The NIT offers a chance at redemption, at the hands of bigger and better programs, in bigger and better venues. Win three games, and you're in New York. Madison Square Garden.

                That's the possibility that awaits Mercer. And that first game is a statement. Just play hard. Don't be down if it's a half-empty arena.

                Win that first game, and then it's on. Mercer has already taken down power-conference opponents gone toe-to-toe with quality mid-majors.

                Win a few games in the next week or two, and more people will know that.

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