Eight losses within three points — that’s what the Mercer men’s basketball team endured last season amid a 15-17 overall record.
But as the Bears kick off their regular season Friday against UCF in Orlando Florida, head coach Bob Hoffman isn’t negatively dwelling on it. He said those trials and tribulations have allowed his team to grow entering this season.
“I thought one of the amazing things was how this bunch stayed together in the midst of the tough times and tough losses that we endured last season,” Hoffman said. “I think they’ve grown to appreciate and understand that every possession is valuable. Every lay-up, every free throw, every turnover is going to be very important if you’re going to play at the level you want to play.”
The Bears were tabbed as the preseason conference favorite in the Southern Conference’s coaches poll but sixth in the media poll. They also enter the season ranked 15th in the Mid-Major Preseason Poll.
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Hoffman said his players are carrying the experience of close losses with them moving forward; he said most teams don’t reach the level on which they want to play until they’ve experienced setbacks.
“When you fight through those setbacks and you grow stronger together through them, I think it’s going to come out on the other side as a valuable thing that we had to fight through,” Hoffman said. “It’s not something you go into wanting to do or trying to happen, but now we have experience in lots of close games.”
The Bears had eight new players on the roster last year; now, the core of the team returns, with only big men Andrew Fishler and J.J. N’Ganga having graduated.
Mercer brings in five freshmen — Marcus Cohen, Mason Green, Mitch Prendergast, Carson Heinen and Victor Baffuto — but also sees the return of Ethan Stair.
Stair missed all of last season with a hernia injury after a breakout freshman campaign, averaging 6.6 points, 4.2 rebounds and starting the final 11 games. Hoffman said having Stair back is “a huge element of this team.
“[He] just gives us another big-time scorer, big-time athlete, tough-minded guy,” Hoffman said. “That’s going to be a great thing. That makes our depth even greater. You put him, [Ria’n Holland] and [Demetre Rivers] as the three-pronged attack at the two and three, that’s really good.”
The entire starting five of Jordan Strawberry, Holland, Rivers, Stephon Jelks and Desmond Ringer return to the court. Holland, the team’s returning leading scorer, was named to the Lou Henson Award Preseason Watch List, an award given to the nation’s best mid-major player.
Starting the season with the same core, along with the team’s mission trip this summer to the Dominican Republic, are major elements of the team’s current progress, according to Hoffman.
“The experience of last year, so many guys getting opportunities to compete at a high level, I really feel like we’re in a great place,” Hoffman said. “I love how they’ve been competing. I love how they’re excited about each other’s success.”
And that success translated to a 77-73 victory over Troy in the team’s exhibition game. The outing raised money for hurricane relief but also served as a chance for the Bears to gather experience making adjustments on the fly -- something Hoffman said the team will need to do well considering it plays six games in eight days to open the season.
The non-conference schedule features outings against Central Florida, Tennessee, Memphis and Alabama.
“Non-conference for us always has, and always will be, an important aspect of getting ready for conference season,” Hoffman said. “That’s why we play those games. We want to get stretched as much as you can and see as many kinds of different offenses and defenses, and I think this year has not shortage of that.”
While non-conference victories are important, it prepares the team for the ultimate goal at the end of the season -- conference play and the conference tournament. Hoffman said the team has talked about its desire to cut down the nets at the conference tournament this season, but he said its focus is on approaching every game in a consistent manner.
Hoffman said that is the mark of a great team. If the team wants to win a ring this season, it will have to win the close games it lost last season. In the exhibition against Troy, Hoffman said he saw the team’s passion to not allow those losses to happen again.
“You saw it on their faces. When the ball was loose, we’re up two, we have three guys diving on the floor,” Hoffman said. “They weren’t going to let that ball get away. To me, that’s a great sign moving forward with what we’re trying to get done.”