Ohio State shocked the college basketball world with their win over Kentucky on Saturday afternoon, but just a few short hours later Mercer came up with their biggest win of the season over Arkansas. The two schools will be looking to build on the momentum when they collide on Tuesday evening in Columbus.
The Bears will be trying to join Chattanooga (Illinois) and Samford (Nebraska) as Southern Conference teams with wins over Big Ten schools. This one would be no small feat, but is certainly doable, as the Buckeyes have already lost to UT-Arlington and Louisiana Tech. They also beat VMI (another SoCon member), 89-62.
On Saturday against Kentucky, four Buckeyes scored in double figures. A fifth collected double digit rebounds. Eight players played all the minutes, all of them playing at least sixteen. In other words, this is not a particularly deep team, but is a very balanced team. Keita Bates-Diop led the team with 14 points, Marc Loving had 12, JaQuan Lyle had 11 and Trevor Thompson 10. Jae'Sean Tate had ten rebounds. Loving leads the team in scoring for the year with 15.5 points per game, and Bates-Diop is second with 12.1. Loving also has made more threes than anyone else on the season, with 20.
Mercer, who only has two single digit losses to Auburn and Davidson on the season, has had to rely on some new players this year. They have eight guys averaging 9.8 minutes or more on the season. Phillip Leonard gets the offense going, with his 4.7 assists per game. He also averages 9.9 points per game. Jordan Strawberry is the back-up point guard, but always seems to be knocking down big shots and making big plays when he is in the game. He is averaging 3.9 assists per game and 5.5 points. Jestin Lewis and Stephon Jelks are the only two players averaging in double figures with 12.6 and 12.0 points per game.
Mercer likes to get up and down the floor when it is available. When they don't shoot early in the shot clock, they take a lot of time off the clock and play efficient offense. It is part of what makes them such a tough team. As anyone who watched the SoCon last year remembers, the Bears play methodical offense and eventually seem to always find the right shot.
The Bears also mix up the defenses and will force you to take your time finding a shot. They are not the biggest team in the world, but they are a good rebounding team who will play defense to keep games interesting.
The most interesting thing about this one is which team can control their emotions early in this one. Will Ohio State come out a touch flat after the performance against Kentucky? Will the Bears be able to go on the road for the second time in four days and keep it together enough to win against a power conference school?
This would be a huge notch on the SoCon's belt this season. Another win over a Big Ten team would be a remarkable accomplishment for the conference as a whole. It would start to force everyone to take Mercer seriously as a threat not only in the SoCon, but on a more national level. This is a huge opportunity for the Bears.
The Mercer defense should give the Ohio State offense trouble. If the Buckeyes are not knocking down long shots like they were on Saturday at times, it could be a tough night for the Buckeyes offense. If the Mercer can hold their own on the boards, keeping Ohio State off the offensive glass, and play solid defense, the Bears will have a good chance all the way until the end. In the end, the Bears will come up just a touch short, but it should be yet another scare for a Big Ten team from a SoCon school. Prediction: Ohio State 68, Mercer 63.