Peach State Sports Blog

Mercer men look to build for next year in CIT

Mercer basketball player Stephon Jelks and the Bears travel to Coastal Carolina on Tuesday for the CIT.
Mercer basketball player Stephon Jelks and the Bears travel to Coastal Carolina on Tuesday for the CIT.

In Bob Hoffman's mind, there is a clear goal for the Mercer Bears' second appearance in the Tournament: take a positive first step into the 2016-17 basketball season.

The Bears open the 32-team Tournament at Coastal Carolina on Tuesday. Mercer is making its fifth straight trip to the postseason, and the Bears started that run by winning the CIT in 2012.

"I got to call all the guys and tell them, and I could tell in their voice, there was the thrill of getting to keep playing in the postseason. Not everybody gets to do that," Hoffman said. "We're in the postseason again, and that makes five in a row. We didn't finish the way we wanted to, but now we have a chance to do something special."

Mercer is 19-14 after losing eight of its past nine games, but the Bears are looking ahead to this event and what it can help build for next season. Despite the struggles to end the season, which came after senior Jibri Bryan was killed and starters Desmond Ringer and Jestin Lewis were suspended, Mercer has plenty to look forward to for next season.

Phillip Leonard is the only senior, while sophomores Stephon Jelks, Jordan Strawberry and Demetre Rivers all took steps forward this season and likely will take on larger roles next year. Freshman Ethan Stair moved into the starting lineup at the end of the season, while fellow freshmen Cory Kilby and Jaylen Stowe showed flashes of being solid rotation players.

Next year's senior class will be made up of Lawrence Brown, who played well with extended minutes at the end of the season, Andrew Fishler and James Bento.

"The experience is going to be big for us because we have everybody coming back, except for Phil," Strawberry said. "So these games are going to be important for us to continue to work and get better and be ready for next year."

Hoffman's program has experience with that. After the CIT win, the Bears played in the NIT the following year and then earned the program's first NCAA Tournament win, beating Duke in 2014. Last year, the Bears played in the College Basketball Invitational.

"Win-or-go-home games are immeasurable what they can do for your program, like we have seen in the past what they have been able to do for us," Hoffman said. "I think the most important thing is to continue to get stronger, work on your game and understand what you need to do to continue to get better and keep doing those things and get that experience of playing in these games.

"The sophomores understand what these games mean, and now this year's freshmen will understand, and you can put those two groups together and build something for next year."