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2015-16 Season Preview: Mercer Bears Looking to Return to Glory

Can Mercer contend for a Southern Conference title in their second year as a member?

Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

It was just two years ago that head coach Bob Hoffman had the Mercer Bears on top of the college basketball world. With the Bears having lost nearly every major contributor from that team that knocked off Duke a couple of years ago, the challenge is now keeping Mercer's sustainability, especially in the stronger Southern Conference.

The first season in the Southern Conference went well all things considered, especially after losing all five starters, but still managed to win 19 games and make a fourth-straight postseason appearance, competing in the College Basketball Invitational last season.

But Hoffman was dealt a blow in April, when it was announced that top scorer Ike Nwamu would be playing his final season in Las Vegas with the UNLV Rebels. The Bears have talent returning and some on the way, however, as the Bears look to acheive sustainability in their second season in the Southern Conference.

One of the players to watch on both ends of the floor will be Phillip Leonard (8.1 PPG, 4.5 APG, 3.5 RPG), who will be the floor leader once again this season for the Bears. Leonard established himself as one of the best assist-men in the SoCon last season, as well as an excellent on-the-ball defender. Now he'll be asked to do more as a scorer.

Leonard will be the catalyst for the Bears this season, and he'll be the experience leader the Bears look to now with the the departure of Ike Nwamu. Leonard is not only an effective leader on the offensive end of the floor, but he is strong defensively as well.

Leonard had some strong performances for the Bears last season, as he posted starts in all 35 games for Mercer in 2014-15. Leonard posted his best performance of the season in a win over VMI in early January, as he posted a career-high 21 points on 6-of-10 shooting from the field and 9-for-11 from the charity stripe in the Bears win.

Leonard completed the season with 10 double-digit scoring performances last season, and finished the campaign leading the league in assists, dishing out 4.5 helpers-per-game. Leonard wasn't much of a perimeter threat last season, canning just 1-for-16 from downtown last season.

Leonard will be joined in the Mercer backcourt by senior Jibri Bryan (7.8 PPG, 4.5 RPG), who will also need to step up his scoring for the Bears this season without a true scoring threat returning. Bryan has shown that ability throughout his career, however, has battled injuries throughout his career.

Injuries were not a problem for Bryan last season, as like Leonard, he started all 35 games for the Bears. Bryan reached double figures in 15 games last season, while also doing well on the defensive end of the floor by registering 1.4 SPG, which ranked ninth in the Southern Conference.

Bryan recorded the first two double-doubles of his career, including a 15-point, 10-rebound performance against VMI in an early league contest, which the Bears would win. He added another double-double, with 10 points and 10 boards in a win at UNC Greensboro.

Bryan added a career-high 20 points in an early-season battle against Rice. Bryan was a proficient outside shooter, finishing second on the team in three-point shooting, canning 44 triples on the campaign.

Like Bryan, senior Jestin Lewis (4.3 PPG, 1.7 RPG) is also a candidate to start this coming season, and he was instrumental in helping transition the way for a new era of guards for the Bears after the departures of talents like Langston Hall and Bud Thomas.

The 6-1 native of Richmond, VA, was able to garner starts in the final two games of the season, which were in the College Basketball Invitational against both Stony Brook and Louisiana-Monroe. He scored a career-high 18 points, with 15 of those points coming off five triples, in a road game at East Tennessee State.

Sophomore Jordan Strawberry (4.3 PPG, 1.2 RPG)--son of former major leaguer Darryl Strawberry--returns in the backcourt, and should see his playing time increase this season. Strawberry has the ability to create his own shot off the jumper and has a good mid-range game. Strawberry averaged about 15 minutes of action off the bench last season for the Bears, and posted his best performance in an overtime loss to Georgia, scoring 21 points on 9-for-18 shooting from the field, while also dishing out a personal best six assists.

The Bears also return redshirt junior Lawrence Brown (0.9 PPG, 1.1 RPG), Demetre Rivers (0.3 PPG) and Tyre Moore (0.6 PPG, 0.5 RPG), who could both factor in as reserves coming off the bench this coming season.

Several freshmen players could prove to be immediate factors as key performers in the backcourt this season, with the additions of 6-2 guard Jaylen Stowe, as well as sharp-shooter Ethan Stair.

Perhaps the biggest concern entering the 2014-15 season is the frontcourt, with players like all-time leading shot blocker Daniel Coursey, T.J. Hallice, and 2014-15 second-leading scorer Darious Moten having all graduated in the past two seasons.

In fact, some coaches around the league felt that Moten was the best power forward in the league last season, and his injury in the opening round win over VMI no doubt affected the Bears for the remainder of the tournament.

There is some talent returning for the Bears in the frontcourt, however, and leading the way for the Bears will be Stephon Jelks (5.1 PPG, 3.3 RPG). The 6-6, 225-lb native of Marietta, GA, has a good inside-out game, and he will step in and be one of the more versatile performers for Hoffman's Bears in 2015-16.

Jelks was selected to the SoCon's All-Freshman team last season, and finished the season with six games in which he reached double figures. Jelks' 52.6 FG% ended up leading the team last season, as he connected on 61-of-116 shots from the field.

James Bento (1.3 PPG, 1.8 RPG) and Niklas Ney (1.4 PPG, 0.9 RPG) will add support underneath, and if Ney's game has come around, he could be a shot-alterer at 6-10 in the paint. Also, watch for newcomer Andrew Fisher--a 7-1 center who comes to Mercer from Gulf Coast College, and the redshirt junior could add that twin-tower element if Ney has developed game over the off-season.

Both Daniel Coursey and T.J. Hallice gave Hoffman's Bears one of the biggest frontcourts in the country two years ago, and definitely gave Mercer two defensive shot-blockers in the lane with their respective size. Fisher averaged 5.3 PPG, 4.4 RPG and 2.6 BPG during his time at Gulf Coast College.

Also landing in Macon is University of South Carolina transfer Desmond Ringer, who sat out last season per NCAA transfer rules. Ringer could prove to be a go-to-player for the Bears this fall, and he comes from a big-time program where he saw nearly 11 minutes-per-game in 28 contests for the Gamecocks a couple of years ago. Ringer, an exceptional athlete, averaged 2.1 PPG and 2.0 RPG during his short stay in the mid-state.

Rounding out the newcomers for the Bears in the frontcourt will be 6-7 Colby Kirby, who comes to Mercer from Ada, Oklahoma and is a good athlete. At just 195, he'll need to hit the weight room in order to be a physical type performer in the post, which is the type of player that Hoffman favors in a big man.

So how good can Mercer be? It's hard to tell, but with so many big contributors gone from the past two seasons, one thing is for sure, and that is Hoffman will need to fo one of his best jobs of coaching since taking over the job back in March of 2008.

However, expect the Bears to be there among the elite, as Hoffman stresses defense. The Bears have consistently ranked among the best in their conference and nationally in both scoring defense and field goal percentage defense. Last season, the Bears ranked second in the SoCon in scoring defense (62.7 PPG) and led the league in field goal percentage defense (41.2%).