IT’S BASKETBALL SZN! I’m going to continue writing my column on a weekly basis during basketball season — that means my columns will cover several games instead of just one like I have been doing with football.
But the format will still be the same. You’ll still see terrible, punny headlines. You’ll still read my ranting about the intricacies of the game. And you’ll still receive great Mercer sports coverage. (Although, that’s debatable.)
The Bears have opened their season 2-1 in the first week — an 88-79 loss to Central Florida, 101-43 win over Toccoa Falls and 86-58 victory over Jackson State.
Mercer won the two games it should have easily won and lost a toss-up game against a very solid Central Florida team that has made NCAA Tournament appearances.
Ria’n Holland has continued to be a lethal scoring threat, averaging 22 points through the first three games and even winning Southern Conference Player of the Week after his first two outings.
The Bears led Central Florida at the half but went Antarctic-cold from the floor in the second — less than 30 percent shooting — to fall to the Knights. The contest against Toccoa Falls was never in question, because, well, we’ll get to that later.
Jackson State trailed 43-38 at halftime, but Mercer ran away during behind a dominant second half.
Here are the takeaways from this week’s games:
(1) Let’s take a minute to recognize Toccoa Falls
I have a friend who goes to Toccoa Falls. The school has about 1,000 students and, well, does not have a very good basketball team.
I know this for several reasons. Reason No. 1: My buddy who goes to Toccoa Falls told me the basketball coach asked him to walk onto the team. They needed bodies.
My buddy isn’t exactly Michael Jordan, if you know what I’m saying. He’s that guy in the gym who talks trash to everyone but can’t ever actually back it up.
For what it’s worth, I beat him essentially every time we play, and. And I’m a golfer, so it’s not like I’m some basketball prodigy.
Reason No. 2: Toccoa Falls lost a game this year by 101 points. It was so bad, media outlets like ESPN and CBS Sports tweeted out the final game score against Appalachian State, 135-34, as a joke.
So why did Mercer have the Eagles on its schedule? Each year, each team has several games where it pays the opponent to come play for an easy win. So the Bears got a W, and the Eagles got some cash. Win-win.
(2) Marcus Cohen could be the real deal off the bench
Head coach Bob Hoffman raved to me before the season about freshman Marcus Cohen. He said that, in one preseason scrimmage, Cohen had 13 assists and one turnover.
“By the time we get to conference play, there’s no telling how good that guy can be,” Hoffman said.
We might not have to wait that long to see Cohen’s potential. He’s already living up to the hype. Against Central Florida, he was efficient in 15 minutes of playing time: seven points and four assists.
In the Toccoa Falls blowout, he stuffed the stat sheet: eight points, seven assists and six steals in only 18 minutes.
It will be interesting to see how Cohen is mixed into the rotation with Ria’n Holland and Jordan Strawberry firmly placed in the starting lineup. There were times when Hoffman played all three guards at one time.
Regardless, we do know he’ll be making a major contribution as a freshman this season.
“If he’s able to continue to figure those things out and understand the nuances of what we’re trying to accomplish, he’s going to make our team better,” Hoffman said. “He can guard at a high level, and he can really distribute the ball.
(3) Ethan Stair’s return cannot be undermined
The redshirt sophomore missed all of last season because of a hernia injury. Hoffman is not hiding the importance of his return this season.
He said having Stair back is “a huge element of this team.”
“[He] just gives us another big-time scorer, big-time athlete. [He’s a] tough-minded guy,” Hoffman said. “That makes our depth even greater. You put him, [Holland] and Demetre [Rivers] as a three-pronged attack at the two and three, that’s really good.”
Added depth is the key. Stair provides another athletic wing off the bench who can defend. Through three games off the bench, Stair has chipped in 12, 12 and 9 nine points.
(4) Rebounding *may* be a problem
The Bears are DEEP on the wing this season but don’t have much size down low. Mercer graduated Andrew Fishler and J.J. N’Ganga, who were 7-foot-1 and 6-foot-11, respectively.
Desmond Ringer stands at 6-foot-9 and Stephon Jelks plays the four at 6-foot-6. Mercer has two 6-foot-10 players in Mason Green and Mac Brydon, but neither played many minutes against Central Florida or Jackson State.
The Bears struggled on the boards against Central Florida — they were outrebounded 39-28 with Ringer and Jelks in foul trouble — and didn’t exactly dominate against Toccoa Falls, a team whose tallest player was… 6-foot-2. Mercer only out-rebounded the Eagles 36-28.
The rebounding looked much, much better in a dominant second half against Jackson State, so hopefully that will be a sign of progress to come in future outings. The Bears out-rebounded Jackson State by 13 in the second half and 35-25 overall.
“I think we’re going to be fine,” Hoffman said.
NEXT WEEK’S GAMES
The Bears travel to the 2017 U.S. Virgin Islands Paradise Jam in Lynchburg, Va., on Friday. They will play Liberty at noon Friday, then their opponents for Saturday and Sunday will be determined after that game.