Once the clock strikes midnight to usher in 2015, it’ll be make-or-break time for Mercer’s men’s basketball’s program, with the rest of the games on the regular-season schedule coming against teams from the Southern Conference.
But before that time arrives, the Bears will embark on a gantlet of three road games against SEC opponents, two of which are very familiar to followers of Mercer during the past few seasons.
The stretch begins Monday at Tennessee, followed by a trip to Athens on Saturday to face Georgia and a Dec. 30 trip to Texas A&M. Mercer then returns to Southern Conference play against UNC Greensboro, VMI and East Tennessee State, all on the road, prior to returning home Jan. 10 to play The Citadel.
“We feel pretty good. We definitely have some growing to do. We are not where we need to be for March,” Mercer forward Darious Moten said. “We’re pretty confident right now; we’ll just continue to work hard.”
With a 6-5 record, the road trip is twofold for the Bears. Not only are they seeking to prove their weight against teams from a major conference, but they’ll also be looking to build up momentum prior to going back into conference play, where Mercer is 1-0.
“It’s going to be good for us. We have some young guys that it’d be good to get some minutes. I haven’t done a very good job necessarily of subbing; we’ve been trying to find a way to get it done in the midst of it,” Mercer head coach Bob Hoffman said. “These three games, we’ll figure out more of what we have going into conference play.”
Tennessee (5-4) and Mercer have crossed paths multiple times recently, both occasions being in the postseason. The Volunteers ended the Bears magical postseason run a year ago in the NCAA tournament, eliminating Mercer 83-63 in the third round. The year before, it was Mercer’s turn to claim the win, 75-67 in the NIT. That victory came on the Volunteers’ home floor of Thompson-Boling Arena. So if anything, the Bears who were part of that team have the experience of playing in Knoxville before.
“We’re excited to play them, but at the same time they’ve a Division I college basketball team just like we are,” said Mercer guard Ike Nwamu, who leads Mercer with 17.3 points per game. “We’ll treat it like any other game.”
That said, both Mercer and Tennessee are far from the same teams of those matchups. The Bears graduated seven seniors off of last year’s team. For Tennessee, former head coach Cuonzo Martin has departed to be the head coach at California, with Donnie Tyndall, formerly of Southern Miss, now roaming the sideline in Knoxville.
The Volunteers, who are unbeaten this year at home, boast four scholarship players from last year’s squad.
“We beat them there before, we know how to do it,” Moten said. “They’re not the same team they were a year ago, I think we’ve got a real good chance.”
And then there’s Georgia, who improved to 6-3 on Sunday with a 65-47 win over Seton Hall. By default, there’s plenty of common thread between the Bears and Bulldogs with both teams being in-state. Three Mercer players are Georgia natives, including starters Moten and Jibri Bryan.
“We’ve been excited for it and have been waiting for it for a while,” Moten said. “It’s a great opportunity to get some good non-conference wins and for some of these younger guys to play in venues they’ve never played in before.”
Mercer didn’t play Georgia last year as part of its schedule, but the Bears did so the previous two seasons, losing 58-49 in 2011-12 and 72-58 the year after that.
Mercer wraps up the SEC slate at Texas A&M (7-3), who the Bears have played just once in their history.