It is mid-January, and as usual, the A-Sun men’s basketball standings are in their “weekend” mode, when a team can move up or down several spots during the course of a given Thursday-Saturday set of action.
Two games separate the top five teams, and there are ties for second and fourth and sixth. More teams are in a tie for a position than not.
Mercer is one of the former, knotted up with East Tennessee State for second.
The Bears look to maintain the status quo Saturday when they host North Florida in the second part of a women’s/men’s doubleheader at the University Center.
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Mercer (13-7, 5-2) has the A-Sun’s No. 1 defense in points allowed (64 points per game), field goal percentage (39.4) and blocks (4.9 per game) into the game.
Langston Hall is in the A-Sun’s top 10 in several categories: fourth with 4.4 assists and in assist-turnover ratio with 1.6, sixth in free-throw percentage at 75.4 and tied for eighth with 1.5 steals.
Jake Gollon is first in free-throw accuracy at 87.2 percent, tied for eighth with 5.8 rebounds, ninth with 3.4 assists and 10th in assist-turnover ratio at 1.2.
Daniel Coursey is first with 2.1 blocks, a half-block ahead of North Florida’s Matt Sauey, and a 66.1 field goal percentage. Justin Cecil is sixth in 3-point shooting (42.4 percent) and ninth in scoring (12.3 points per game),
North Florida is 3-4 and in sole possession of eighth place in the conference, only a game behind tied-for-fourth USC Upstate and Lipscomb. The Ospreys are 9-11 overall after a three-game losing streak.
Of course, those losses have come by a total of 12 points and to teams above them in the standings (Stetson, USC Upstate and ETSU).
North Florida has been streaky to say the least, with three three-game losing streaks, one four-game losing streak and two two-game winning streaks.
Other than a 30-point win by Belmont, North Florida’s only big losses have come to major programs: Alabama by 20, Florida by 36, Ohio State by 35 and Virginia Tech by 29. The Ospreys were competitive with Miami (75-62 loss), Kansas State (79-68 overtime loss) and Auburn (84-71 loss).
“They play pretty good defense, they get after you, and they’re athletic,” Mercer head coach Bob Hoffman said. “They’ve got all kinds of guys who can throw it down on you if you’re caught sleeping.
“I think they’ve played good in some of those games they’ve lost.”
The game is the final regular-season homecoming for guard Jimmy Williams, a senior from East Laurens who leads North Florida with 3.2 assists. He had 13 points in the loss to Kansas State
North Florida has weapons. The foursome of Parker Smith, Jerron Granberry, Travis Wallace and Andy Diaz is good for 43.1 points per game.
The Ospreys are last at the line, hitting only 61.8 percent. But they’re third from the floor at 45.8 percent, just behind the Bears’ 46.2.
North Florida enjoyed its last trip to the University Center. The Ospreys reached the A-Sun tournament title game last spring, and are 3-1 in their past four games at Mercer.
“They have a lot of guys back from the team that was in the championship game last year,” Hoffman said. “They know how to play, and I’m sure they like playing on our floor. They have some good memories over here, and that’s not good.”
Mercer’s women won’t have any easy task with North Florida (7-12, 4-4), either, having to tangle with senior Brittany Kirkland, who has earned an all-conference nod of some sort every season with the Ospreys, including a first-team all-conference preseason selection this year.
The 5-foot-7 guard from Monroe is approaching 1,500 career points and is the current leader among active A-Sun players.
Lakira Jones is on the verge of becoming the Ospreys’ top all-time shot-blocker, and is tied for fifth in the A-Sun with 7.1 rebounds. She had 31 points and 29 rebounds in the meetings with Mercer last season.
The Bears (3-16, 1-7) are on a nine-game losing streak, one which neared an end on Thursday with the 76-65 loss to Jacksonville.
They overcame a sluggish start to the game and second half to pull within and stay within two possessions for most of the final eight-plus minutes until the Dolphins took advantage of late turnovers and then clock-stopping fouls for the 11-point win.
It was a five-point game with 30 seconds left, but the Bears -- minus injured starters Ry’van Buchanan and Sharnea Boykin -- couldn’t creep closer.
“We’ve got to be able to fight through fatigue and fight through adversity and not get down (by) double digits and not start second halves so slowly,” Mercer head coach Susie Gardner said. “And learn how to win get back on a winning streak.”