Statement game awaits Mercer in Knoxville

mlough@macon.comMarch 19, 2013 

Throughout the course of a college basketball player’s career, he or she will get the chance to play in maybe 140 basketball games. Or just suit up for that many.

More if lucky, less if not. There is plenty of work put before those rewards. And games are rewards.

So that brings us to the NIT and Mercer’s trip Wednesday night to Tennessee, where both teams didn’t plan on being.

But playing is better than -- to paraphase pitching legend Nuke LaLoosh from the fictional Durham Bulls a couple of decades ago -- not playing. And yes, that includes the NIT, the College Basketball Invitation and the CollegeInsider.com tournament. Sure, they’re not the NCAA, but the teams involved are still ... playing.

Call them 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, but it went through some rough spells and has become an extension of the NCAA tournament. Instead of one 96-team tournament, the NCAA runs a 68-team event and a 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 is miffed and/or stunned with the Bears’ A-Sun tournament title-game loss. But let’s say the final week of the regular season played out differently and Mercer was guaranteed nothing and instead went to, let’s say, the CIT for a second year.

Think of the hand-wringing, the muttering, the paranoia, the indignation.

And how wrong those people would be.

The recent jumpers onto Mercer’s bandwagon don’t know or have intentionally forgotten the program’s history. For goodness sakes, the basketball teams have been free of that embarrassing outhouse of a facility known as Porter Gym for less than a decade and have come out from under budgets tighter than a Speedo on Charles Barkley.

But in the 34 seasons of competition in full Division I and conference play, Mercer has more single-digit win seasons than 20-win seasons and has had five more losing seasons than winning seasons.

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

So if the CIT came calling, be thrilled to keep playing and have a chance to end a season in the postseason with a win.

Now it’s up to the Bears to take advantage of a huge chance to further enhance this improving program and reputation. Folks have asked which was better: the NCAA and a first-round waxing or the NIT and chance to play more games.

The money is better in the NCAA tournament, and the exposure is a mixed bag. Teams get some, but it’s in passing unless they pull off the big upset or take a high seed down to the wire, as Belmont did with Duke in 2008. Get taken down by 34 points, as Belmont did by UCLA two years earlier, and your team is heading home after a great overall experience and predictable pounding.

The NIT offers NCAA-quality opposition throughout the 32-team field. It offers a chance at more practice, a certain level of exposure, some money (albeit more in investment form) and a chance to play some programs that might not otherwise play your team.

Win three games, which nearly all 32 teams can do, and teams head to New York. Madison Square Garden.

The guess is that Mercer will exhibit the hunger necessary for a program that’s still very much in the prove-itself stage. And make no mistake, winning at Tennessee and winning out West in a second-round game and then playing to go to New York?

For a growing program, that’s mighty acceptable.

Contact Michael A. Lough at 744-4626 or mlough@macon.com

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