Photo courtesy of Mercer Athletics
Mercer football has been the team receiving recognition for playing high-level opponents recently, but now it’s men’s basketball’s turn to jump into the action.
The Bears (5-2, 0-0) will continue non-conference play this week as they swing into Tennessee to face the Tennessee Volunteers and Memphis Tigers.
The two-game stretch will be Mercer’s toughest stretch of the season: the Volunteers nearly took down No. 3 Villanova this past week, and Memphis has a National Championship under its belt.
Even though these two beauties may be a 10, the Bears should feel confident in their presence. Mercer is coming off an impressive performance in the Paradise Jam, beating Liberty — who was at home — 63-48 and downing Drexel 78-59 before losing to Colorado 79-70 in the final.
Liberty is no slouch; it has beaten VCU and Wake Forest this season. The Bears’ performance in the Paradise Jam caught the attention of many, including NCAA.com’s Andy Katz, who said this:
“Mercer will be one of the teams no one will want to face in the first round of the NCAA tournament if the Bears can get through the Southern Conference. No one.”
After Thanksgiving break, Mercer returned in form and defeated Hiwassee 90-53 at home. Here’s what you need to know going into this week:
(1) We’ll learn just how good Mercer is over the next two weeks
Mercer has the following teams on the schedule through Dec. 19: at Tennessee, at Memphis, Florida A&M, at La Salle and at Alabama.
Tennessee and Memphis are obviously tough challenges on the road. La Salle, historically, also has a good program, and Alabama was ranked No. 25 and undefeated before losing to Minnesota because it only had three players on the court in the last 10-plus minutes.
Three. Players. You can’t make this stuff up.
Mercer, with an experienced core, has proven to be impressive thus far at 5-2 with close losses to UCF and Colorado. But it needs to win those types of games, and we’ll see if the Bears can do that.
They will have three chances over the next two weeks. If Mercer can go 3-2 over that span, chalk it up as a victory. More importantly, though, I want to see how the Bears compete against Tennessee, Alabama and Memphis — three possible NCAA Tournament teams this season.
Head coach Bob Hoffman said the team knows what Tennessee is about.
“They’ve got great athletes,” Hoffman said. “That’s exactly what I told [the team]. Those guys are going to be coming at us really fast, and that was part of the issue we had against Colorado. We’re going to have to get back and talk. We have to point and holler and be in the right places.”
(2) Ria’n Holland’s status is up in the air
The Bears’ leading scorer did not suit up for Sunday’s game against Hiwassee. Hoffman said the guard injured his ankle against Colorado.
Holland is currently day-to-day, and the Bears are unsure if he will play Tennessee. The standout senior is averaging 20.2 points per game, nearly double that of anyone else on the team.
Ethan Stair started in Holland’s place against Hiwassee and performed well: a season-high 15 points, six assists and five rebounds. Hoffman said he was determined.
“You could see it on his face a little bit,” Hoffman said. “That’s the kind of competitor [he is] … He has the mentality that he wants to rebound and push, which I’m good with because he’s fast. He usually makes great decisions, and he gives us a completely different dynamic when he’s in because of his athleticism.”
Stair’s ability to jump into the starting lineup and perform at that level was huge. But I’d prefer to have him coming off the bench and doing that while Holland is starting. The Bears will need Holland on the court in order to win against Tennessee and Memphis.
It’s hard to replace 20 points a game. Mid-major teams need a player who can score prolifically in order to take down Power 5 opponents, and Holland is that guy for Mercer.
(3) Desmond Ringer and Stephon Jelks are the ex-factors of the team
Holland may be the leading scorer on the team, but Ringer and Jelks are incredibly important down low for the Bears. Mercer’s frontcourt is lacking in height and depth, so without Ringer and Jelks playing a lot of minutes, the Bears are in trouble on the boards.
See the two games Mercer has lost this year: It was out-rebounded 39-28 by UCF and 32-29 by Colorado. In both games, Ringer was in foul trouble. Jelks was in foul trouble against UCF but picked up the slack for Ringer’s absence against Colorado, snatching 12 rebounds.
Jelks is leading the team with 7.4 rebounds a game; Ringer has only grabbed 2.4 rebounds, but that’s because he’s been in foul trouble in three games and has played little in the blowout games.
Ringer also does more work as a big body down low who creates room for players like Jelks or others to crash the boards. He doesn’t stuff the stat sheet, but his presence is certainly felt.
Behind Ringer and Jelks are freshman Mason Green and redshirt freshman Mac Brydon. Green hasn’t played many minutes and is inexperienced, and Brydon has only appeared in three games so far.
Ringer and Jelks will need to stay on the court for Mercer to compete with tougher opponents.