Mercer looking for NCAA success

sports@macon.comMarch 17, 2014 

The Mercer men’s basketball team will be making its third postseason appearance in as many years Friday when it meets Duke in the second round of the NCAA basketball tournament in Raleigh, N.C.

The Bears won the CIT in 2012 and advanced to the second round in the NIT last season, and while those are good events, they pale in comparison to the NCAA tournament, where they have a spot this year.

It’s great recognition for the university, and I couldn’t be happier for head coach Bob Hoffman, who has been the architect for the best three years in the history of Mercer basketball. His record during that time is 77-31. The previous best three-year record came between 1951-54 at 59-22. It’s also fitting that Mercer, the lone charter member remaining in the A-Sun, would go out as the conference champion and receive the confrence’s automatic bid in its final year as an A-Sun member.

The Bears move on to the Southern Conference next season.

This year’s A-Sun title gives Mercer bookend berths in the NCAA tournament. The Bears won the conference’s first automatic bid back in 1981. That is one of two previous trips to the NCAA tournament for Mercer. The last came almost three decades ago when the Bears took the conference championship in 1985.

Bill Bibb coached the Bears to both of those titles, and I don’t think he ever has received the recognition he deserves for those accomplishments. He is still Mercer’s all-time winningest coach with 221 wins.

The 1981 team, led by conference player of the year Benton Wade, finished the regular season with a 15-11 record and then won three straight games in the A-Sun tournament (at the time, the conference was known as the Trans America Athletic Conference), which was played at Hirsch Coliseum in Shreveport, La. That facility was literally a cow barn, used to display livestock during the Louisiana State Fair. Mercer defeated Houston Baptist in the title game 72-67.

That championship earned the Bears a spot in the NCAA Midwest Regional in Austin, Texas, where they lost in the first round to Eddie Sutton’s Arkansas Razorbacks 72-67. Wade fouled out with nine minutes remaining, or who knows what would have happened. That Arkansas team featured Scott Hastings, Alvin Robertson, Darrell Walker and U.S. Reed.

Hastings, Robertson and Walker all had lengthy careers in the NBA, while Reed was drafted but never played. But he had a significant role for Arkansas in the 1981 NCAA tournament. In the Razorbacks’ next game after beating Mercer, he hit a halfcourt shot at the buzzer to eliminate defending national champion Louisville 74-73

The 1985 Mercer team, led by A-Sun player of the year Sam Mitchell, who went on to play 13 years in the NBA and who later became the NBA coach of the year with Toronto, finished at 22-9. Three of the losses that season were by one point. Mercer outlasted Arkansas-Little Rock in the conference final played at Georgia Southern’s Hanner Field House 105-96. The win put the Bears in the NCAA East Regional at the Omni in Atlanta against Georgia Tech, but they lost 75-68. That Georgia Tech team featured future NBA players Mark Price and John Salley.

Even though this is only Mercer’s third trip to the NCAA tournament, it came close several other times, losing in the conference final in 1995 to eighth-seeded Florida International (68-57), in 1996 to sixth-seeded Central Florida (86-77), in 2010 to fifth-seeded East Tennessee State (72-66) and last year to second-seeded Florida Gulf Coast (88-75).

Let’s hope the Bears can duplicate the success of Florida Gulf Coast last season when the Eagles made it to the Sweet 16.

Bobby Pope is the executive director of the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame. Email him at bobbypope428@gmail.com

Mid-major top 10

(CollegeInsider.com, poll of March 10)

Tournament schedule

1. Wichita State (31 first-place votes), 34-0

NCAA: 1st seed, vs. Cal Poly/Texas Southern winner, St. Louis, 7:10 p.m. , Friday

2. Stephen F. Austin, 29-2

NCAA: 12th seed, vs. Virginia Commonwealth, San Diego, 7:27 p.m., Friday

3. Gonzaga, 26-6

NCAA: 8th seed, vs. Oklahoma State, San Diego, 4:40 p.m., Friday

4. North Dakota State, 23-6

NCAA: 12th seed, vs. Oklahoma, Spokane, 7:27 p.m., Thursday

5. Harvard, 26-4

NCAA: 12th seed, vs. Cincinnati, Spokane, 2:10 p.m., Thursday.

6. Toledo, 26-5

NIT: 6th seed, at Southern Miss, 8:30 p.m., Wednesday

7. Georgia State, 24-7

NIT: 6th seed, at Clemson, 9 p.m., Tuesday

8. Green Bay, 24-6

NIT: 4th seed, vs. Belmont, 8:15 p.m., Tuesday

9. Delaware, 24-9

NCAA: 13th seed, vs. Michigan State, Spokane, 4;40 p.m. Thursday.

10. Mercer, 26-8

NCAA: 14th seed, vs. Duke, Raleigh, 12:15 p.m. Friday

-- Michael A. Lough

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