Building off of Mercer’s best finish in several years last season, expectations in Macon are sky-high for this year’s team. Led by a formidable core of seniors, this could be the year that the team from middle Georgia makes it to the NCAA tournament. “We’re shooting for the Atlantic Sun championship and want to compete in the NCAA tournament, not just show up,” said senior guard James Florence.
Ranked third in the conference by many of the different basketball media outlets, the Bears will need to get by perennial conference powers Jacksonville, Lipscomb, Belmont, and ETSU for the opportunity to represent the A-Sun come March. Finishing 17-15 last season, head coach Bob Hoffman impressed many in the college basketball world with wins over Auburn and Alabama, while nearly missing an upset over Georgia Tech during homecoming.
Adapting to Hoffman’s new up-tempo offense last season, Mercer piled plenty of points on the scoreboard, but seemed to give up just as many on the other end. With opponents averaging 76 points against the Bears, defense and ball control were the focal points of the offseason. “We just couldn’t handle the pressure,” said Hoffman on ESPN’s Insider team preview. “They started trapping us and the guards did a good job, but we didn’t take care of the ball as well as we needed to,” he added.
The Bears added several key players during the off-season that should boost their depth inside, and outside for the upcoming season. With conference shot-blocking threat Calvin Henry gone due to graduation, Hoffman and his coaching staff added nine new faces to the roster to give Mercer big-time threats up, and down the roster. Add in starters Florence, Daniel Emerson, E.J. Kusnyer, and Brian Mills, and you’ve got the makings of a tough basketball team.
“The big difference this year is that we’re a lot more athletic at the wing and at the post,” said forward Daniel Emerson. “Building off of last year, we’re a lot deeper, a lot better, and a lot more talented than we’ve been in the past. We’ve got more play-makers, more shooters, and I really feel good about our chemistry,” he added.
Of the returning starters, Florence (20.8 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 3.7 apg), and Emerson (13.8 ppg, 10.7 rpg) will see plenty of scoring opportunities, as will three-point threat E.J. Kusnyer (10.5 ppg, 2.6 rpg). Florence heads an offense that returns 82 percent of the scoring from a year ago, and comes into 2009 as the most prolific scorer in the NCAA. According to ESPN.com, his 20.8 points per game is a point higher than Notre Dame’s Luke Harangody’s 19.7 point per game career average.
Known for their thunderous dunks, BeJay Corley and Brian Mills will see time down low this year, and be expected to contribute every night. Other returners expected to contribute include wings Brendan Walker, Mark Hall, and Jake Gollon.
Perhaps the biggest unknown at Mercer is how effective, and how quick, the nine new faces will be able to contribute on the floor. Tevin Swann (15.0 ppg, 8.0 apg) comes to Mercer with high acclaim, while Jeff Smith (13.2 ppg, 5.8 apg, 3.0 spg), and Brandon Moore (10.4 ppg, 8.3 rpg) tore up the junior college ranks last season at Wallace State (Ala.) Community College. Michael Jenkins, and Ridas Pulkanuninkas also come from the junior college ranks from Texas where their height and physicality has given opponents plenty of matchup problems.
This year’s schedule isn’t nearly as imposing as it was a year ago due to the big non-conference wins last season. Facing Bucknell, Bryant, and Providence in the World Vision Invitational to kick off the season, Mercer will play their first two home games in mid-November against Fisk, and Florida State (Homecoming).
Big matchups before Christmas follow against Georgia Tech, Vanderbilt, Alabama, and UNC-Charlotte, as well as two tough conference tests against Lipscomb, and Belmont. Mercer will finish out the rest of the year with conference tests highlighted by matchups at home against Campbell, ETSU, Stetson, and Jacksonville.
With the Florida State game already sold out, tickets for the Bears’ home games are at a premium. For season tickets and updates on the team, visit MercerBears.com for more info.