Thank you, Mercer men’s basketball, for creating some excitement around these parts.
Tied for first place in the A-Sun with Belmont heading into the final game of the first half of conference play? That’s a good place to be at this point in the season. And it sets the table for bigger and better things down the road, especially with the other top teams in the A-Sun having to come to Macon during the second half of conference play and for the conference tournament.
In other words, if you’re someone who follows Mercer basketball only every now and then, it’s time to climb on board the bandwagon.
Mercer gained the chance to move into first Saturday when Belmont lost to USC Upstate early in the day. When that happened, the anticipation level definitely climbed a couple of notches for the Bears’ game against North Florida later that afternoon.
The pessimist could have quickly dismissed the possibility of Mercer taking advantage of the task at hand. Mercer hadn’t been in that sort of situation this late in the season since moving to the University Center, so there was reason to believe that the team wouldn’t have the instinct to take care of things.
But there was no reason for such pessimism Saturday. Mercer established a lead early against North Florida. The Bears gave up that lead, but then they rebuilt it, claiming a 69-58 victory in front of the second-largest home crowd of the season.
What makes this whole situation even more interesting is that the Bears have just one senior in Justin Cecil. But that hasn’t kept Mercer from winning six of its past seven games and winning every home game but one.
Part of the reason for that success has been the ability of head coach Bob Hoffman to develop some depth. Now in his fourth season with the program, Hoffman has put together a roster that has 10 players who have participated in every game, with eight active players averaging in double figures in minutes played.
There aren’t any big-time scorers out there -- Cecil is the team’s top scorer at 12.1 points per game while Langston Hall and Jake Gollon average a little more than 10 points -- but the depth allows Mercer to run an offense that places a premium on passing and ball control and keeps opposing defenses guessing. The Bears average four more assists per game than their opponents, and Mercer is shooting a very healthy 46.1 percent from the field.
The schedule is very kind to Mercer for the second half of the season, which starts following Monday’s home game against Jacksonville. Including Mercer, five teams are within one game of first place, and the four other teams involved -- Belmont, East Tennessee State, USC Upstate and Lipscomb -- still have to play Mercer in Macon.
A regular-season championship would mean a lot to the Mercer program. Not only would it mean the top seed for the conference tournament, it would also guarantee the Bears a postseason berth -- at worst the NIT, with an NCAA berth going to the conference tournament winner.
Things are going to be fun for Mercer here in the next several weeks. And if things turn out the right way, fun things could just turn into special things.
It’s definitely a team worth watching.
Contact Ron Seibel at 744-4222 or firstname.lastname@example.org