The words “big game,” “Mercer” and “championship” have rarely gone hand in hand.
Of the seven team sports at Mercer – both basketballs and soccers, baseball, softball and volleyball -- only two are above .500 in their history.
The men’s basketball team began the season all of 14 or 20 games above .500 after starting in 1902-03, or 1906-07, depending again on which record books are used. It hasn’t had consecutive winning seasons since 1994-95 and 1995-96, and even then, the Bears went only 15-14 both seasons.
The fact is, consecutive winning seasons have been quite an anomaly.
The Bears entered the season with only six 20-win seasons. One of their conference cohorts has almost that many 30-win seasons in the past 19 years and does have that many since joining Division I in 1997-98.
And here we sit, one week before one of the biggest, most relevant weekends for a Mercer sport in a long, long time.
It’s not to overlook or downplay Mercer’s success in other sports in the lifetime of current students.
The women’s soccer team reached the A-Sun tournament final in four of five years, including just a few months ago, and has the 2008 regular-season title and 2010 tournament title and NCAA berth to its credit.
The baseball team has had seven straight .500-or-better seasons, a fairly monumental streak at Mercer, and won a game in the program’s first trip to the NCAA tournament.
And the men’s soccer team had a run from 1999-2005with two conference tournament titles and three regular-season championships, then struggled, but it is progressing again.
But basketball is the marquee sport at Mercer.
All that said, two games at the University Center next week – barring a stumble Saurday at Jacksonville on Saturday and Monday at North Florida – are massive. They’re good enough for full-price tickets and guaranteed to be worth the money.
Again, don’t discount Jacksonville – which is a legit rival of Mercer – and North Florida. But if the Bears get by the Dolphins and Ospreys, go ahead and snag some tickets for Feb. 23 and Feb. 25.
Lipscomb and Belmont haven’t been in Division I long, but they wasted little time in controlling their series against Mercer. Lipscomb leads 12-7 -- thanks to three straight Mercer wins -- and Belmont is on top 19-5.
Nashville is a great city until teams have to deal with the Bison, who changed their nickname from the plural and didn’t really tell anybody, and the Bruins.
There are other issues involving Belmont and Mercer and the A-Sun’s past, present and future that amp things up.
It’s an understatement to say how badly the Bruins – who must dispatch always-tough East Tennessee State and surging USC Upstate as well as Kennesaw State before visiting - would like to win four straight games at the University Center in the next three weeks.
It’s an equal understatement to how badly Mercer yearns to beat the A-Sun’s basketball standard-bearer program’s twice in a week at home and lead it on its way to the Ohio Valley Conference.
The winning coach will get a back-crunching bear hug from the winning president because neither team wants to beat anybody else the rest of the way as badly.
Mercer is poised to win its first outright regular-season conference title in Division I men’s basketball, well, ever. Yeah, ever.
The Bears have shared only one other, the record-setting season in 2002-03 when they went 23-6 with the likes of Aleem Muhammad, Delmar Wilson, Scott Emerson, Clarence Baker and Wesley Duke.
And now, Lipscomb and Belmont wait. Then there’s the conference tournament, at which Mercer and Belmont wouldn’t play, most likely, until the championship game.
And that would be one of the top nights in Mercer athletics history, period, with the chance to beat the best, Belmont, to make its first NCAA tournament trip since 1984-85.
One irony is that Mercer is playing Belmont basketball: real basketball with defense, fundamentals, discipline, consistency and thoroughly entertaining action for those who prefer something more simple than a dunk.
Determining a “best” team in a program’s history is really impossible. Determining a “best” season isn’t.
And if they take care of business the next week and a couple of days, the Bears will be playing for the latter when Lipscomb and Belmont and then five other teams come to town for the conference tournament.
History awaits, and it should be fabulous entertainment.
Contact Michael A. Lough at 744-4626 firstname.lastname@example.org