Since expanding its college basketball tournament field to 64 teams, the visceral emotion that is March Madness has spawned some of the greatest Cinderella stories the world of sports has ever seen. Butler and VCU in 2011, Cornell in 2010, George Mason in 2006 and Gonzaga in 99 all came from conferences that supposedly had about as much chance at producing a team that could make a deep run in the tournament as a sixteen seed might have against a one. This year, Cinderella’s coveted slipper might just fit the Mercer Bears in their first tournament berth since 1985.
Mercer had just a decent non-conference showing, despite a 12-4 finish. Highlights were few, but only because they didn’t really play anyone. A three-point road loss at Texas, a double-overtime victory against Seton Hall, and a 79-76 road upset of Ole Miss is all there is to speak of. You could throw in the 96-82 spanking the Bears took at Oklahoma, but that’s more of a lowlight, considering the Sooners led wire-to-wire and by as many as 31 at one point.
Conference play is where Mercer became a team to be reckoned with. The team opened the Atlantic Sun schedule with an 86-49 drubbing of Jacksonville before suffering its first of four conference losses to North Florida, who they would lose to twice this season. The Bears then rattled off 8 straight wins before finishing the season 6-2 and sharing the regular season conference title with Florida Gulf Coast. Florida Gulf, incidentally, was 2013’s March Madness Cinderella and the team Mercer knocked off in the Atlantic Sun title game to get to the big dance.
Mercer finished its campaign 22-7 overall and with strong numbers, ranking No. 26 nationally with 79.3 ppg, No. 39 at 38.0 rpg, No, 10 with 16.4 apg, while shooting a No. 29 ranked 47.5 percent from the field. Defensively, the Bears allow 66.4 ppg for a No, 78 national ranking. What makes the Bears a possible Cinderella, though, is their consistency. They have all the tools to make a run. An athletic point man in 6-4 senior Langston Hall, who led the team with 14.7 ppg and 5.6 apg, a solid defender in 6-10 senior center Daniel Coursey, the storybook will of sixth-year senior forward Jakob Gallon, who gets to finish his collegiate career in the NCAA tournament after an injury-riddled journey, and the experience of an all senior starting five. And on the perimeter, senior G Anthony White, Jr. and senior F Bud Thomas, who connected on 41.9 and 39.1 percent, respectively, from outside the arc this season, can really light it up if they get hot.
As a projected number 15 seed, Mercer is looking at a tough opening game. But even if its fortunes end with the first round, the exposure the school from Macon, Georgia is set to receive from just being one of the 64 teams invited to the big dance could do wonders for an enrollment estimated around 8,000. Last year’s darling, Florida Gulf Coast reportedly saw a 40 percent increase in its enrollment following its run to the Sweet 16. The Bears not only want Cinderella’s slipper to fit, they need it to.
Commentary by Rick Sarlat