The 2013 NCAA tournament came and went, and the Mercer Bears weren't a part of it. All season long, coach Bob Hoffman's team appeared to be the class of the Atlantic Sun Conference, finishing first in the league in both offensive and defensive points per possession, managing a 14-4 conference record, and winning the regular season title.
But in the winner take all world of mid-major conference hoops, none of that will get you to the dance. The Bears still had to win their conference tournament. While at the time they appeared the favorite, they were beat in the championship game by Florida Gulf Coast.
So while Florida Gulf Coast spent the next few weeks dunking on the likes of Georgetown during the tournament run of a lifetime, Hoffman's team had to be content with a trip to the NIT. They made good use of it, upsetting Tennessee before falling to BYU in the second round.
This year Mercer returns, again favored to win its league and represent the Atlantic Sun this March on the national stage.
Let us be perfectly clear, Mercer is a good basketball team. With one exception, the Bears return every player of significance from a season ago. Loaded with seniors, Mercer will be among the most experienced teams in the nation. While most season opening opponents in recent years have served as cannon fodder for Rick Barnes' Texas team, Mercer should not.
The Texas Longhorns can lose this game. At a minimum, it will be an actual test against a good opponent.
Mercer faired well last season at both ends of the floor, but one of the Bear's most striking features was their ability to protect the rim. Last season, Mercer rated fourth in Division I in opponents' field goal percentage on layups and dunks, allowing opponents to make 50.4 percent on shots at the rim (Source: Hoop-math leaderboard). They ranked behind only Akron (with the ferocious shot blocker Zeke Marshall), Kansas (perhaps you have heard of Jeff Withey), and Stony Brook (another mid-major team with a tough interior D).
Some of Mercer's rim defense can perhaps be chalked up to its low mid-major level of composition. But a large share of the credit goes to 6-10 senior center Daniel Coursey, along with 6-11 senior part-time player Monty Brown. Both players are capable of protecting the basket.
On offense both Coursey and Brown are active on the glass, and could cause Texas some pain on that end of the floor as well if the box outs are lacking. 6-9 junior T.J. Hallice is another rotation big man in the Mercer lineup.
Coach Hoffman's D was more than a couple of big guys. They also frequently turned their opponents over, forcing turnovers in 22 percent of opponent possessions (ranked 72nd, per kenpom.com). But while the Bears forced quite a few turnovers last season, they didn't convert these turnovers into quick points at the other end at a particularly high rate. Less than eight percent of the Bears' initial shots came in transition after a live ball steal, which is the 114th highest rate in the nation.
Overall, the Bears seldom looked to run, attempting only 16.6 percent of their shot attempts in transition, which was a rate lower than 294 teams in D-I. Instead, Hoffman's offense played at a slow pace, and his team looked to hoist up frequent threes. 40 percent of the Mercer shots were taken from beyond the arc, the 34th highest rate in D-I, while the team connected on 35 percent of these attempts.
6-4 senior Langston Hall and 6-6 senior Bud Thomas, the two primary ball handlers, were frequent gunners from long range. Both players took more than half of their shots from three point distance, and while neither shot the ball exceptionally well, both hit respectable percentages in the low to mid thirties. 6-6 senior Jakob Gollon is another dangerous outside shooter, as is 6-2 senior Anthony White.
While the Bears didn't draw many fouls last season, when they did their many shooters made opponents pay. Mercer hit 76 percent of their free throws, the 11th highest percentage in D-I.
If there is a theme emerging from all this, it is that the Mercer rotation features six seniors, many of whom are big and/or can shoot. This is a team that will challenge, and may defeat, a young Texas squad.
The Texas Longhorns this season will go as far as their defense will take them. With so many shooters on the floor, tonight that defense will face a serious test.