Friday’s win by the Mercer Bears shocked the world. Mercer was not a typical 14th seed that beat just any other third seed to grab the headlines.
The Bears beat Duke.
Yes, the New York Yankees, Dallas Cowboys or Boston Celtics of college basketball.
Mercer beat Duke.
We’ll probably continue to say that for a while around here, regardless of what happens Sunday when Mercer plays Tennessee. But don’t expect this team to rest on just one victory, even if it was at the expense the once-mighty Blue Devils.
Mercer’s win Friday was something that should trigger a conversation in college basketball. Is it better to have veteran players who stick around and form a team, instead of having a bunch of freshman stars who might bolt to the NBA as soon they know they can cash in?
Mercer’s seniors, or as Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski called them “men,” are a big reason for the success. This is their first trip to the Big Dance, but they won the CIT two years ago and were in the NIT last year. That counts, obviously.
It’s not like Mercer head coach Bob Hoffman wouldn’t accept a star player who might leave early for the NBA, but his current team proves it might just matter if players stay in college and get better. It might make them better personally and create a roster that can do special things.
Hoffman deserves tremendous credit. He knew this team would continue to improve, and for anyone who would listen, he said all year his players would not be intimidated by anyone or any coach. They weren’t Friday, and if they weren’t intimidated by seeing Coach K on the sideline and the mighty Blue Devils, they probably won’t be intimidated any time soon.
Friday’s win was simply Hoffman’s reward. Everything that is happening now is like it was diagrammed on his chalkboard, just like a play he designed for senior point guard Langston Hall. Hoffman had a plan when he arrived in Macon, and it has playing out perfectly.
He started the entire process by inviting the people of Middle Georgia to come watch his team play. Isn’t that refreshing? A head coach actually wanted the people of his community to come to his games, so he asked.
Hoffman went to civic clubs and spoke to people about his team. He was accessible to the media. He put out signs on the roads inviting fans to the games. He simply extended the invitation, and perhaps it is as simple as, “If you ask them, they will come.”
Hoffman had a great facility to offer, and that helped. If the Bears were still at old Porter Gym, Hoffman might have never uttered a word. But he knew he had the environment conducive for people to enjoy a game. Then it was up to him to improve the product on the court.
And slowly but surely, he did just that. But it was done with players who know each other very well. Sure, they had players come and go, but the core of this team has been together awhile. Is there a more experienced team in the tournament?
These seniors will leave and be replaced by a new cast of characters next season. But expect them to be complemented with even better talent. Players all over the country will line up to play for Hoffman and the Bears, and we can think this group of men that might have started something very special.
But there is more work to do, and like most men, expect the Bears to go to work and get the job done in the third round. That’s what Hoffman has drawn up, and it’s hard to go against the Bears after the impressive performance we saw Friday.
We’ve bought into this plan. We’re on board. Hoffman is now considered a genius and rightfully so. Friday’s win was the biggest thing to happen in Macon sports in, well, forever. And just think of how great it will be if this joyous ride continues for a while longer.
Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon and online at ww.foxsports1670.com. Follow Bill at twitter.com/BillShanks and e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.