Mercer ready for next big step

dshirley@macon.comMarch 7, 2014 

mercer_uscu

Mercer’s fans turned out in force Thursday for the Bears’ A-Sun tournament semifinal win over USC Upstate.

BEAU CABELL — bcabell@macon.com Buy Photo

Win or lose Sunday, this has been a terrific season for the Mercer Bears.

It has been another step forward for the growth of the program.

Yes, the NCAA tournament is the goal for this team, but another trip to the NIT wouldn’t be too bad either. Even with a loss, it looks like Mercer would be headed to the NIT for the second straight year.

But the Bears aren’t going to lose, right?

Not after everything this program has accomplished the past few years. Not after all the big wins this season. Not with a trip to the NCAA tournament on the line for the second straight year. Not to that team again in another A-Sun tournament title game.

It just feels like this is Mercer’s year ... Mercer’s time. Florida Gulf Coast had its time last year and made the most of it. Now it’s Mercer’s turn to bask in the glow of a magical NCAA tournament run.

To get a chance to experience that, Mercer has to win Sunday. And it feels like the Bears will do just that.

Certainly, Mercer faces a difficult test when it travels to Fort Myers, Fla., to take on Florida Gulf Coast in the A-Sun tournament championship game with a berth to the NCAA tournament on the line. The Eagles have a terrific home-court advantage, and they showed that in full force earlier this season when they blew out the Bears 68-55 in the regular-season meeting at Alico Arena.

So it’s not going to be easy. But this program has come too far in the past few years to not take advantage of what will be right in front of it Sunday.

Think about where Mercer was when Bob Hoffman arrived. The Bears had suffered through three straight losing seasons and finished the 2008-09 season by losing nine of their final 11 games for an 11-19 campaign.

But things quickly turned around with a 17-15 showing in Hoffman’s first season before 16-17 and 15-18 finishes the next two years. Then things really took off as the Bears went 27-11 and 24-12 the past two seasons, and here they are with a 25-8 record entering Sunday’s game.

It has been a remarkable turnaround for this program, which has been pushed forward by a steady senior class, which plays the game the right way. That group -- Langston Hall, Bud Thomas, Jake Gollon, Daniel Coursey, Anthony White Jr., Monty Brown and Kevin Canevari -- has been special and has changed the program as those players have done things Mercer fans have never seen before.

But the one thing they haven’t done is earn a berth into the NCAA tournament. It’s the only mark against their resume, and it’s time for them to rectify that.

They get their chance Sunday.

But this won’t be Mercer’s only chance to experience that, as long as Hoffman is around. Those seniors are definitely going to be tough to replace, but there is plenty of talent behind them with players like Ike Nwamu, T.J. Hallice, Jibri Bryan and Darius Moten. They have contributed the past couple of seasons, and they are waiting in the wings for their chance to take over the program and keep it rolling.

But that’s next year. First there is a game to win Sunday and the chance to enjoy everything that goes along with that.

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

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