The Mercer basketball program is coming off a difficult season on and off the court with one player being killed, two others being suspended and the Bears finishing their season with nine losses in their final 10 games.
Jibri Bryan was slain during the season, Jestin Lewis and Desmond Ringer were suspended, and Mercer struggled, losing in the first round of the Southern Conference tournament and then the CIT.
But led by a strong rising junior class, including Stephon Jelks, Jordan Strawberry and Desmond Ringer, and a large group of transfers, head coach Bob Hoffman sounds motivated to get his program rolling again.
Q: Let’s get started. Just how the summer is going, you’ve got a lot of new faces. You’ve got to be excited about getting all the new pieces in place and getting going for next season?
A: Summer school starts (this) week, and some of those will be rolling in. Then it will be a couple of weeks before we can get on the floor with them, but we’re fired up about them being here. The nucleus of young men coming back with all the additions, I think, will be a great group of guys to work with.
Q: The guys coming back, with that strong sophomore class, with everything that they were able to accomplish last year, what do you expect out of that group this year going into the season?
A: Well, I hope they make the same stride that they did from their freshman year. If they did, we’ll be in really good shape. And then we also hope the freshmen that were here have that same kind of jump as sophomores. Our assistants do a great job in workouts and pushing those guys, and we get to do that again this summer, and I think that will pay huge dividends for the outcome of the things that we’re able to accomplish next year.
Q: What’s the key for the guys coming back? Is it just going through the summer, or what is the key for them to take that next step?
A: Well, just a lot of work, shooting a lot of balls, getting into the gym more than you think you need to, lifting weights, eating the right kind of foods and just spending the right amount of time at your craft, getting as good as you can possibly get because the more deposits you make, the more return you can get off of it.
Q: Do you see leadership from that group coming back? Who do you think are going to be some of the guys that lead this group because that’s always a key for every team, right?
A: Stephon is always one that steps out. He won’t be doing as many workouts. He’s coming off the shoulder surgery he had. He won’t be back until probably late July when he can actually start doing contact, but he’ll be the one on the sideline pushing them and trying to get them in the gym. But all those guys, really, even though Demetre and Jordan are more quiet, their work habits have been good, and I think they can continue to even get better.
Q: The new group that you brought: You brought in a lot of transfers and that’s something new for you. Those players specifically, what do they bring to the team as you go into the new season?
A: We ended up doing that, as the year unfolded, we ended up adding more young men than we thought we were going to in the fall. We added two freshmen that we’re really excited about in the early signing period. One was the player of the year in the state of Oklahoma, and Ross Cummings had a great year in Tennessee. Both those guys are going to really help us. No doubt, Darius Roy had a great year as the player of the year in Oklahoma. Those two guys are going to help us. We added some really good shooters, top-10 in the country, junior college guys, experience at multiple, different levels that are going to help us. I just think we’re going to have a chance to be as deep as we’ve ever been with all those new pieces.
Q: As a coach, you get used to the turnover, you get used to new pieces and new faces, but you have a lot this year, more than you have probably ever had except for the year you had that great seven-player senior class graduate?
A: That was a big nucleus that we lost, and when James Florence and Daniel Emerson and that group, E.J. Kusnyer, all those guys, everybody told us then they didn’t know if we could ever be any good anymore. That’s the nature of college basketball. You’re going to have guys graduating. We’ve had 14 young men graduate, get their diplomas, not use up their eligibility in the last three years, which is truly amazing. That doesn’t happen very often any more. A lot of guys use up their eligibility but don’t graduate, so we’ve been blessed in that way, and we believe the nucleus of these guys, coupled with the guys returning, I think it’s really going to be a fun group to coach.
Q: You’ve been in the SoCon going into three seasons. Is the conference about what you thought going in, or is there anything that surprises you about the conference at all?
A: I think the conference is really deep from top to top bottom. I thought it was a really good conference, but I think it’s even deeper than I thought it was going into it. We played some of the teams before we got in, and I think the competition has been fantastic, and I know it will continue to even get better. We’ve got great coaches who are recruiting like crazy. We had a tremendous non-conference season as a league last year. I believe that will happen again this season. We hope to be one of those teams that are able to win a few of those games.
Q: You have done that in the past, and you mention the non-conference. You’ve got a good non-conference schedule coming up again this season.
A: We’re just not done with it, so we can’t release all of it, but it will be a lot of fun. The fans will be excited about the teams we’re going to play.
Q: At this point, you’ve had a lot of success around here. Last year, you didn’t finish the season the way wanted to obviously. Are you rejuvenated to get it back to what it was before what happened this season?
A: Yeah, I think everybody’s motivated. Everybody’s pushing hard, working hard. There’d be no greater reward for the young men coming back than to find a way to walk away with a championship next season, and I think that would be a tremendous thing for us to push for. That’s what we try to do every season, but I think I just see next year as an opportunity for a special run.