The Ruling: Take a positive from a negative in Mercer basketball’s 77-74 loss to ETSU

Hayes Rule, Staff Writer

Mercer basketball dropped its fifth straight game Saturday in a 77-74 loss to East Tennessee State. It’s the first time a Bob Hoffman-led team has lost five games in a row, and the program hasn’t done so since the end of the 2007-08 season. But I saw signs of progress and hope Saturday.

(1) Don’t count Mercer out of the NCAA Tournament yet.

Anything can happen in the SoCon Tournament.

Take last year for example: No. 10 seed Furman (8-21, 5-13) blazed through The Citadel in the play-in round, then went on to beat No. 2 seed Chattanooga and No. 3 seed Mercer before nearly beating No. 1 seed Wofford in the final.

And don’t take that as if I’m suggesting the Bears’ chances are as low as Furman’s were last year. Even after its five-game skid, Mercer sits sevent in the conference behind Western Carolina and UNC Greensboro because of tiebreaking measures.

While both games were at home, Mercer took league-leading Chattanooga to overtime and had three shots to take now-second-best ETSU to overtime.

Saturday, the Bears had the Bucs on the ropes in the first half as they led by 11 points before ETSU used a 15-4 run to end the half. And they did so as a team.

I wrote in my first column that Mercer had to find production from eight-plus players — not just three or four — to play at the team’s early and mid-season form.

That happened against ETSU. The first seven players to enter the game scored less than 12 minutes into the outing. Mercer plays its best basketball when every player gets involved. If it can continue to perfect that brand of basketball and become even more familiar with the new rotation, a conference championship is not out of the works.

Head coach Bob Hoffman even called this “a new season” for the team, alluding to playing without Jibri Bryan, Jestin Lewis and Desmond Ringer.

But while it may be a new beginning, the goal won’t change for the Bears.

And that goal still remains a reality.

(2) The Bears MUST win their next two games.

But that reality must start with two victories to end the regular season. Mercer will travel to VMI Thursday, then UNC Greensboro Feb. 28 before the conference tournament in Asheville, North Carolina March 4-7.

They are must wins for two reasons: Neither team is exactly the cream of the crop in the conference — VMI (7-19, 2-13) sits dead last while UNCG (12-17, 8-8) is sixth, — and the Bears will need confidence before Asheville.

In the first meeting with the Keydets, Mercer pulled away in the second half to down VMI 73-58 at Hawkins Arena. But it could have been worse.

VMI knocked down 10 3-pointers in the first half and attempted 37 throughout the entire game, approximately 12 above its season average for a single game. Limit the Keydets behind the arc, and the game should be a victory.

A win against a more formidable opponent in UNCG would be the much-needed confidence booster to spurn a tournament run. In an 81-67 victory in the first meeting, Mercer was led by Lewis and Ringer, who combined for 39 points.

But defeating UNCG would not only be a confidence booster. It would also allow Mercer to cement the sixth spot entering the conference tournament, meaning the Bears would avoid a play-in game.

You don’t want a play-in game.

(3) Let Jordan Strawberry come off the bench.

Last time, I called for some more fish. I received that with a berry on the side.

Hoffman inserted Andrew Fishler into the starting lineup Saturday for the first time this season, moving Jordan Strawberry to the bench and Stephon Jelks to the four spot.

It worked.

Not only did Jelks register a game-high 10 rebounds — the second most he has had since Ringer’s suspension, — but Strawberry provided a dynamic spark off the bench with 22 points.

“I thought when we got to the end of the game in some other second halves that Jordan [Strawberry] and [Phillip Leonard] were getting tired at the same time — and it was hurting us. So that’s why we went back to what we were doing,” Hoffman said. “I think we found something [that] worked. Plus, we put [Jelks] at the four, which he got back to rebounding and not having to play out of position himself.”

The Bears look to finally be finding their rotation for the remainder of this season. While Fishler did not have as great of an impact as he did in previous games where he played approximately 20 minutes, Jelks was able to return to his more natural position while Strawberry provided points off the bench.

And that’s no indictment against Jordan Strawberry: That rotation works for everyone.