Mercer men’s basketball preview


Image: Justin Baxley

Jordan Strawberry poses with Toby the Bear.

Hayes Rule, Staff Writer

Just over a year removed from its Cinderella run in the 2014 NCAA Tournament, the Mercer men’s basketball team is squarely focused on reaching that pedestal again.

Coming off a rebuilding season after losing seven key players from the 2013-2014 squad, the men’s team registered a record of 19-16 last year and ended its season with a 71-69 loss to Louisiana-Monroe in the quarterfinals of the CBI Tournament.

Coach Bob Hoffman and his players will be looking for their lost slipper again this year.

At Mercer Madness Friday, Oct. 16, Hoffman told the crowd he wanted to reconvene in Hawkins Arena 149 days later on March 13 — “Selection Sunday” — for the 2016 NCAA Tournament.

“Let’s go dancing in 2016,” Hoffman said, shouting to the crowd.

But if the Bears want to dance like they did at the Mercer Madness event, they’ll be faced with the task of replacing seniors T.J. Hallice — who just signed to play for Dinamo Bucuresti in Romania — and Darious Moten, who was second on the team in scoring last year with 11.4 points per game.

And he was only second to Ike Nwamu, who led the Bears with 15.1 points per game before he transferred to UNLV in the spring.

But Hoffman has moved on from the shooting guard who put on a show in 2014’s Mercer Madness.

“We’re not worried about him being gone,” Hoffman said. “We’re happy for him, but that was a long time ago. That was in the spring. We’ve had nine months.”

Senior guard Jibri Bryan, who is the team’s second-leading returning scorer at 7.8 points per game, said replacing the lost starters could reap positive benefits.

“It’s going to make us closer, honestly — make us stronger,” he said. “Because we want to prove people wrong. It’s going to make us go harder.”

Replacing starters will not be unfamiliar for Hoffman. The Bears had an entirely new starting five last year.

“It’s just like the other years,” Hoffman said. “We were two or three possessions away from winning the league [last year]. That’s the kind of program we have.”

And despite the new faces, Mercer finished third in the conference during the regular season before losing to 10th-seeded Furman in the Southern Conference tournament.

Senior guard Phillip Leonard said the loss has motivated the team even more this year.

“Every workout, we think about losing in the SoCon tournament,” he said. “We have to work each day to make sure that doesn’t happen next year, and we’re a lot more ready and prepared.”

Third place is exactly where the SoCon preseason poll tabbed the Bears this year, as Mercer gained one first-place vote behind Chattanooga and Wofford.

No Mercerians earned any conference preseason accolades, but Hofford isn’t concerned. No players earned the recognition last year, either.

“I know we’ll have some players that will end up having some kind of accolades based on what our team performance is because of how they give themselves to each other and are excited about each other’s success,” Hoffman said. “I think this year’s team will be no different than a lot of the years we have been here.”

But neither Leonard, who is the team’s leading returning scorer from last year at 8.1 points per game, nor Bryan, believe they have to fill the gap left by Nwamu. Both want to improve as leaders, and while they will play important roles for the team, they said others will step up to replace Hallice, Moten and Nwamu.

“We have a lot of guys that’s going to step up and play fine for us — a lot of guys that probably didn’t play as much last year that you probably didn’t get to see,” Leonard said. “But they’re really good players, and we’re counting on everyone to contribute.”

Some of those contributors might be newcomers, as five new faces will take the court this year for the Bears: freshmen Ethan Stair, Cory Kilby and Jaylen Stowe, as well as transfers Desmond Ringer and Andrew Fishler.

Ringer — a redshirt sophomore who transferred from South Carolina — and Fishler — a 7’1” redshirt junior from Gulf Coast Community College — will “be a force in every game that we play,” Hoffman said, as they play a similar position but in opposite ways.

But it will be a team effort for the Bears if they want to play Cinderella again.

“Every day you walk out to practice, you’re trying to figure out a way to put yourself in a position to get better each night, each day that you practice and every game that you play,” Hoffman said. “Eventually, you hope winning is a byproduct of doing things right throughout the season, and you find a way to win three in a row in March to get to go to the [NCAA Tournament].”