The sweet comfort of conference play begins on Saturday for the Southern Conference with five games. The conference is currently 16th in RPI, far higher than it has been in recent years. That sets up for one of the most interesting seasons in a long time in the SoCon.
On this first day of conference play, there is one game that stands out above the rest as the most intriguing game of the day. The Mercer Bears sit at 10-3, having won at Arkansas and are getting ready for a trip to conference favorite Chattanooga on Tuesday night. The Samford Bulldogs are 9-4, with a win at Nebraska and seem to be at least a year ahead of schedule. On Saturday, they will meet in Macon, Georgia, in a critical early litmus test for both teams.
The Bears won 80-56 in Macon and 62-61 in Birmingham over the Bulldogs a year ago. When Ike Nwamu decided to transfer, I did not think the Bears would be as successful as many were expecting this year. However, it did not play out like that. The Bears have lost by six at Davidson, seven at Auburn and a twenty point loss to Ohio State and that is the only games they have lost. The best win was over Arkansas, and according to Pomeroy, no other win is over a team ranked higher than 177 (Western Michigan).
Samford has only lost four games- to Louisville by 41, then a one point loss to Austin Peay, a ten point loss to Texas and a two point loss to South Alabama. The best win is over Nebraska, but the next best win according to Pomeroy is the win over #217 Idaho on a neutral court.
In other words, both teams have a quality win to hang their hat on, but have not exactly played world beater out of conference schedules. Mercer's schedule ranks 284th according to LiveRPI, and Samfords ranks 307th. The best performances have been losses in some cases. There are some close losses that are anything but embarrassing for the two schools.
So what happens on Saturday? Both teams like to play aggressive on the defensive end. Samford likes to put full court pressure when they get the opportunity. Mercer plays very tough, hard-nosed halfcourt defense.
It will be up to Phillip Leonard of Mercer to handle that Samford pressure. He is the most important player on the team. He averages 9.2 points and 4.7 assists per game. He has a 2.44 assists-to-turnover ratio. He will need to have a very good game to help the Bears.
When he is on the bench, Jordan Strawberry will be the point guard. He averages 5.1 points and 3.8 assists per contest. He looks for his shot when he is in there. He is an important piece off the bench.
Demetre Rivers and Desmond Ringer are the two big starters for the Bears. They are 6-8 and 6-9, respectively. Ringer makes 64.5% of his shots and averages 5.4 rebounds per contest. Stephon Jelks leads the team in rebounding. He gathers 9.0 per game. He also is tied for the leading scorer, with 12.2 points per game. Jestin Lewis is also averaging 12.2 points per game, but leads the team in three pointers, having knocked down 25 on the season at 35.2% clip.
Samford will need to see freshman Matt Rose knock down shots. He has made 27 threes this year and is making 48.2% of his threes. The sharp shooter is averaging 10.2 points per game. He is also averaging 4.8 rebounds per game.
Christen Cunningham is following up on his excellent freshman campaign with a very good sophomore year. He is averaging 14.2 points per game. He also leads the team in assists at 3.6 per game. Cunningham was so good last year and he has gotten even better this year. He has become one of the best players in the SoCon.
Darius Jones-Gibson is the Bulldogs leading scorer. He is averaging 15.8 points per game and shooting 48.8% from the floor. Jones-Gibson is a great scorer in this league. He can consistently score on almost any team. He has only had two games in single digits this season- Louisville and Texas. He should be able to score plenty on SoCon competition.
Freshman Wyatt Walker leads the team in rebounding with 5.8 boards per contest. He also is averaging 7.5 points per game and is shooting 54.2% from the floor. Walker has been a very pleasant surprise as a freshman.
What will Jones-Gibson do against this Bears defense? Will he be able to score? That may be the key question in this one. He averaged just 5.5 points per game against the Bears a season ago. He picked up three fouls in one game and four in the other. In the game in Birmingham, he played 20 minutes and took just three shots. On the whole, he shot 5 of 10 against Mercer. He only scored in single digits two other times against SoCon schools last year- and they were the two games immediately following the Mercer game in Birmingham late in the year.
This game should be competitive, but Mercer knows how to slow down an opponent's best option. They should hold Jones-Gibson in check for much of the night. Cunningham and Rose will have to pick up the slack. At home, the Bears will be good enough to come up with a tight win. Mercer 69, Samford 63.