In recent seasons, the Mercer basketball team built intense rivalries throughout the A-Sun -- especially with Florida Gulf Coast -- as it climbed the conference’s ladder.
The Bears will start over with new conference rivalries beginning Saturday as they make their Southern Conference debut at 4 p.m. at Hawkins Arena against VMI. Mercer is 4-4 overall while VMI is also 4-4 and won its conference opener Thursday, beating Samford.
The Keydets are also in the Southern Conference for the first year, returning to the conference after years in the Big South Conference.
“We’re really thrilled about the new challenge and the new opportunity for our university and the program, and we start that against a very good basketball team that is unconventional in everything they do with a great coach,” Mercer head coach Bob Hoffman said. “The principles of what they do and how they attack people, they’re really good at it, so we know we’re in for a challenge.”
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VMI likes a fast-paced game and is averaging 86.8 points per game, which ranks eighth nationally.
QJ Peterson leads the way with 21.3 points per game, while Craig Hinton averages 10.7 and Tim Marshall averages 10.1. The Keydets have four other players averaging more than 6.0 points per game.
Head coach Duggar Baucom’s team already has attempted 226 3-pointers and has made 84. By comparison, the Bears have shot 112 and made 38.
“They shoot open 3s, they press, they trap,” Hoffman said. “They just try to get you to speed up ... most of the time. They just do unconventional things depending on what they think the weakness of the other team is. They’ve been really good at it; he’s been there 10 years now, and they’ve perfected what they do.
“We have seen aspects of what they do, maybe not the whole enchilada. You just have to take care of the ball, make shots and finish plays when you have the opportunity against teams like that.”
Ike Nwamu is the only Mercer player averaging in double figures in scoring at 17.1 points per game, while T.J. Hallice (9.8), Phillip Leonard (9.0), Jibri Bryan (8.8) and Darious Moten (8.5) show off the team’s balance.
Mercer is 3-0 at home.
“As time has gone by, the more we have come together,” Bryan said. “Everybody is just trying to jell and to get the chemistry together. Slowly but surely it’s coming along. I think we’re ready (for conference play).
“No matter what, we’re just going to go hard, and we’re going to compete. We’re going to fight no matter what. Even if we don’t know exactly what we’re doing and where we’re supposed to be, we’re still going to go out there and play.”
Bryan is hoping that’s a characteristic that resonates with the Mercer fans. After home games with Dartmouth and Bethune-Cookman on Dec. 16 and Dec. 19, the Bears will be on the road until Jan. 10.
During that period away from home, Mercer will face SEC teams Tennessee, Georgia and Texas A&M and play three more conference games against UNC-Greensboro, VMI and East Tennessee State.
“Hopefully, it’s packed,” Bryan said of Saturday’s game. “It’s going to be an exciting time for us and the fans, getting into the new conference and getting into conference play. It should be fun. It gives us a lot more energy when it’s packed and you can’t hear and you really have to focus.”