One of the pleasures of carrying a 21-6 record into the latter stages of the college basketball season is the relative lack of challenging situations throughout the season.
That doesn’t mean that Mercer hasn’t encountered any sticky situations or road bumps. There has been a letdown following a big win, an early season loss at sub-.500 Evansville two days after an emotional overtime win over Seton Hall. There has been a time or two when injuries have played into the story line, such as a New Year’s Day loss at North Florida in which Bud Thomas played with a broken nose and Monty Brown sat out after tweaking his knee in a pregame shootaround.
There was even a game, an 80-61 loss Feb. 2 at USC Upstate, in which Mercer just went flat cold. That happens in college basketball, even to the best teams. And playing at USC Upstate’s tiny gym against play-making veteran Torrey Craig wasn’t going to make things any easier.
Still, Mercer enters Friday’s nationally televised game at Florida Gulf Coast with an impressive resume. Only one of the Bears’ losses has come to a team with a losing record (Evansville, 11-17), and all but one of Mercer’s victories over Division I opponents have been against teams with winning records.
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But now it’s time for the real tests. The bigger challenges. Perhaps even some uphill battles.
Friday’s trip to Florida Gulf Coast isn’t a make-or-break deal for Mercer. A loss knocks the Bears back into a tie for first with the Eagles, and the No. 1 seed for the conference tournament -- and the right to host throughout -- will still be in play.
A win in front of what likely will be a hostile crowd in Fort Myers, however, would be huge for Mercer. The regular-season title would be all but wrapped up, allowing Mercer to play on a home court on which it hasn’t lost all season, and the Bears surely would get another bump in the eyes of the NCAA tournament committee.
Mercer needs all the bumps it can get right now with the tournament committee. The A-Sun is traditionally a one-bid conference, and the Bears’ RPI isn’t strong enough right now for an at-large should the need arise. Depending on the source, Mercer’s RPI is somewhere in the high-60s or low-70s. The Bears probably need to jump at least 15 or 20 spots to enter the at-large picture.
Of course, winning the conference tournament turns the at-large talk into a moot point. But as crazy as conference tournaments can be, as much as bouts of the unexpected can break out, it’s worth it to pad the resume.
With so much at stake for Florida Gulf Coast, Mercer will have its hands full in what certainly is the biggest road game of the regular season. Let’s see how the Bears will respond.
Contact Ron Seibel at 744-4222 or firstname.lastname@example.org.