It has been a terrific year for Mercer basketball

dshirley@macon.comMarch 22, 2013 

The goal for every college basketball team in the nation, both men and women, is to be playing this week in the NCAA tournament.

That includes the teams at Mercer.

But while the Bears teams didn’t reach that goal, both teams took another big step in the right direction to punching a ticket into the NCAA tournament in the future.

Bob Hoffman’s men’s team certainly had to be disappointed by not reaching the NCAA tournament because that was the focus all season and even more so when the Bears won the A-Sun regular-season title. The loss to Florida Gulf Coast in the conference tournament championship game was disheartening, but it didn’t wipe away all the good the Bears accomplished this season.

The season was another step in the progression as Hoffman grows a program that can compete for a tournament bid each year. Mercer got a taste of the postseason last year when it won the CollegeInsider.com tournament with a team led by a strong sophomore class.

That group grew through its junior season and led the Bears to another solid season. Mercer won its first A-Sun regular-season championship outright, and even with the loss to the Eagles on their home court for the tournament title, the Bears moved their program forward again this season.

That regular-season title clinched a berth into the NIT, and that led to a trip to Tennessee on Wednesday night for the first round. The Bears put on an impressive performance in that game -- just ask Bobby Knight, who was there for the game working for ESPNU and couldn’t stop gushing about the Bears -- but it wasn’t a surprise to anyone who has watched the Bears play.

They played smart, played terrific defense and shot the ball really well. They always are on point with the first two aspects of that win, but if the third one -- the shooting -- is as good as it was against the Vols, Mercer can go a long way in the NIT. BYU is next up with a 9 p.m. game Monday on ESPN, and it won’t be a surprise if the Bears win that one, too.

The Mercer women’s team has much farther to go to get into the NCAA tournament, but Susie Gardner’s Bears made a huge leap forward this season. After winning just two games two years ago and six games last year, Gardner’s team won 19 games in the regular season and one more in the conference tournament.

Just getting to the conference tournament was important for this program, and with the season they had the Bears earned a No. 1 seed for the Women’s Basketball Invitational and hosted McNeese State on Thursday in the first round.

They weren’t able to come away with a win, but it was still the program’s first national postseason game as a Division I team, and that says a lot about the season the Bears had.

No matter what happens with Hoffman’s team the rest of the way in the NIT, the two Bears teams this season headed in the right direction and look like they will move forward to bigger and better things in the future.

Contact Daniel Shirley at 744-4227 or dshirley@macon.com

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