JOHNSON CITY, TENN--One of the biggest games of the Southern Conference weekend will be between former Atlantic Sun Conference rivals Mercer and East Tennessee State in a battle of teams tied for second place in the Southern Conference standings. The Bucs are coming off their first loss of the Southern Conference season, which was a 94-84 setback at Chattanooga, while Mercer got a thrilling win over Wofford by a 70-69 score in Macon.
Mercer's lone Southern Conference blemish this season came in the Volunteer State, as the Bears were 74-62 losers to league-leading Chattanooga back on Jan. 5. The Bears and Bucs represent one of the best Southern Conference rivalries simply because the rivalry goes back to each program's membership in the Atlantic Sun .
The Bucs joined that league in the 2005-06 after a 28-year run in the Southern Conference. The Bears and Bucs will be meeting for the 22nd time on Thursday night, with the Bucs holding a 13-8 series edge. The Bucs claimed a thrilling 71-70 win in Johnson City last season, while the Bears were able to post a 69-64 win at Hawkins Arena last season the two SoCon heavyweights split the season meetings.
Last season's win by the Bucs snapped what had been a five-game losing streak to the Bears. The game will be a contrast in styles, with the fun-and-gun offense of the Bucs, which ranks second in the Southern Conference in scoring (79.1 PPG), while Mercer enters the contest ranking sixth in the SoCon in scoring offense (71.5 PPG) and second in scoring defense (64.5 PPG).
The Bucs come in ranking second in the Southern Conference in field goal percentage offense (45.6%) from the field, while the Bears come in leading the SoCon in field goal percentage defense (38.5%) so far in 2015-16. Mercer continues to be among the best rebounding teams in the country, leading the league in rebound margin, with a +11 on the boards this season.
This game will be interesting, as both teams come in red-hot as of late, with ETSU having claimed wins in six of its last seven games, while Mercer has claimed victories in 14 of its first 18 games to start the campaign, which accounts for the best start for the Bears since the 1978-79 season.
Previewing The Bucs:
East Tennessee State has the talent to compete with anyone in the league, and until the loss of All-SoCon guard A.J Merriweather, might have the best talent and depth among any team in the league. With the injury to Merriweather, the Bucs have now had a significant injury affect them each of the past two campaigns, losing Providence transfer forward Ron Giplaye in early December to what turned out to be a career-ending knee injury.
Still, ETSU is no doubt one of the premier teams in the SoCon, as evidenced by its 4-0 start to Southern Conference play this season.
The Bucs have enough to be in the thick of the SoCon race all season, and like last season, with Jalen Riley (20.2 PPG) and Rashawn Rembert (14.4 PPG), who have both graduated, the Bucs have maybe the most talented backcourt in the SoCon, with T.J. Cromer (16.2 PPG, 3.5 RPG), Ge'Lawn Guyn (17.2 PPG, 4.0 RPG) and Petey McClain (2.7 PPG, 2.8 APG) highlighting a backcourt that has scoring punch with Guyn and Cromer, and veteran experience and quickness, in point guard McClain.
Off the bench, the Bucs utilize the services of sophomore Desonta Bradford and Missouri transfer Deuce Bello.
The Bucs are similar to Furman in that they start two guards, in Cromer and McClain who are excellent ball-handlers, similar to Furman's John Davis III and Stephen Croone, who are both essentially point guards on the floor. Cromer, Guyn and Bello are all newcomers and represent three of the top four scorers on the team this season. ETSU, of course, has a rich tradition of great point guard play over the years, including the likes of Keith "Mister" Jennings (1988-92), Tim Smith (2003-06) and Jason Niblett (1991-93) being three of the most memorable ones to pass through Johnson City to play the position.
Guyn comes in with some big games scoring-wise this season, and his 17.2 PPG this season ranks him third overall in the Southern Conference in scoring this season, trailing only two players from military schools, in VMI's QJ Peterson (17.4 PPG) and Derrick Henry (17.4 PPG), who are tied atop the SoCon in scoring this season. Guyn has seen his scoring average a little lower in league games this season, averaging just 15.8 PPG in the five league games the Bucs have played in 2015-16.
The Cincinnati transfer has had several standout games this season for the Bucs, and the last time out for ETSU, Guyn was able to post a team-high 21 points in the loss to Chattanooga and posted a season and had a career-high 28 points in the win over UNC Greensboro.
Guyn is an explosive as a scorer, and he has scored 20 or more points in seven games this season, including twice since the Bucs have started Southern Conference play. As a perimeter threat this season, Guyn enters the contest against the Bears leading the team and ranking second in the Southern Conference in three-pointers made so far this season, having connected on 44 shots from long-range. Guyn trails only Western Carolina's Rhett Harrelson, who has connected on 48 triples this season.
Like Guyn, Cromer has also been an explosive scorer this season for the Bucs in his first season playing guard in the Blue and Gold. Cromer came to ETSU from Columbia State Community College, where he averaged 19.9 PPG and posted 107 three-pointers last season prior to making his debut at ETSU this season. The 6-3 guard can score points in bunches, much like Guyn. Cromer combines with Guyn to form maybe the most explosive backcourt in the SoCon this season, with the duo combining to average 33.4 PPG so far this season.
Guyn has also been a contributor on the defense end of the floor for the Bucs, with his 14 blocks this season tied for first on the team in blocks this season.
From three point range, Cromer ranks just behind Guyn in three-ponters made this season, as he has connected on 40 triples this season to rank eighth in the SoCon. Both Cromer and Guyn are also both shooting better than 40% from three-point land this season, accounting for two of the three ETSU guards to rank in the league's top 15 in shooting from three-point range this season, with Cromer ranking 10th in the SoCon from three-point land (41.2%, 40-of-97) this season, while Guyn is 12th in the league in three-point field goal percentage in 2015-16 (40.7%, 44-of-107).
Cromer enjoyed the best game of his career earlier this season in a win over Morehead State, as the junior guard poured in 25 points in a 75-72 win by the Bucs over the Eagles.
Cromer has five 20-point scoring efforts this season, including two in league play, posting 20 and 23 points in league wins over VMI and UNCG. Cromer ranks fifth in the SoCon in scoring, which is just behind Furman's Stephen Croone's, who averages 16.4 PPG. Cromer has connected on 57.1% of his shots this season in league play, which leads the team and ranks sixth overall in the SoCon in field goal percentage in five conference games this season.
McClain rounds out the backcourt starters for the Bucs and he is not the scorer, but rather the distributor to both Cromer and Guyn, and his distribution numbers have been good primarily because of the rate of production from players like Guyn and Cromer. McClain enters Thursday night's clash of SoCon titans averaging 2.8 helpers-per-game to rank eighth in the Southern Conference in assists-per-game.
The player off the bench that will see the most action for ETSU in the backcourt is Lester Wilson, who is the best three-point shooter on the team, as he comes in ranking fourth in the SoCon in three-point field goal percentage this season, having connected on an impressive 44.8% from three-point land this season.
The veteran 6-4 guard is athletic and has had several outstanding performances during his senior season, as he had a season-high 17 points in a recent outing against UNC Greensboro in a recent win. He currently ranks 15th all-time in scoring, as he has posted 1,266 points. Fifteen of his points against the Spartans came on five three-point field goals, and comes into the matchup with Mercer connecting on 30-of-67 from three-point range this season.
Deuce Bello (8.6 PPG, 2.4 RPG), a transfer from Missouri will also see plenty of action off the bench this season. The 6-4 guard has been another of the impact transfers for head coach Steve Forbes, as the Bucs' three top scorers in the lineup now are all transfers. Bello had a season-high 16 points in a win over Averett.
Desonta Bradford (5.3 PPG, 2.2 RPG) is one of the best defensive players off the bench, rounding out the major contributors in the backcourt this season for ETSU. Like Bello, Bradford is a good athlete off the bench for the Bucs and is averaging about 16 minutes-per-game. The last outing against Chattanooga proved to be Bradford's best performance of the season, as he finished with 12 points in the 10-point road loss at Chattanooga this past Saturday.
In the post, the Bucs will look to Isaac Banks (6.2 PPG, 5.2 RPG) and Abednego Lufile (4.1 PPG, 3.5 RPG). Banks has a pair of 12-point efforts for the Bucs this season, including the most recent 12-point effort coming in a win against North Carolina Central. Banks is connecting on a team-best 61.1% of his shots from the field this season, having connected on 44-of-72 shots from the field.
Lufile rounds out the starters for Thursday night's clash and is the third newcomer out of the five starters for ETSU. Lufile is slated to make his eighth start of the season for the Bucs on Thursday night, and he is not looked to for his scoring, but did post a career-high 11 points in a win over Milligan back in December.
Rounding out the players expected to see time in the paint for the Bucs is junior seven-footer Peter Jurkin (4.7 PPG, 2.2 RPG), who comes into Thursday night's contest tied with Guyn for the team lead in blocks (14) this season. Jurkin has seen action in all 18 games this season, including five starts to his credit. He enjoyed a career-high 10 points in a loss to Tennessee Tech earlier this season.Jurkin is a transfer from Indiana, where he was limited by injury. Jurkin sat out the entire 2014-15 season as a result of NCAA transfer requirements.
Perimeter defense will be key on Thursday night for Mercer, as the Bears will be facing the SoCon's second-most efficient perimeter offense this season, as the Bucs have knocked down 37.9% from three-point land this season. The Bucs will face a tough Mercer zone, so it will be interesting to see if ETSU can manage to shoot well enough to get the Bears out of their matchup zone defense, which has given opponents headaches this season.
Previewing The Bears:
Bob Hoffman's Mercer Bears are a lot different than the team that played in their first season as a SoCon member and won 19 games a year ago. They play more as a team, and are off to their best start since the 1978-79 season. While there's no player as talented as Ike Nwamu in the lineup, the seven or eight primary players who have seen action this season have proven to be one of the toughest outs in the Southern Conference this season.
The Bears have won 14 games this season, and have done it with a stout defense and rebounding. In fact, the Bears are rebounding about 40% of their missed shots on the offensive end this season, which is unheard of. Limiting second chance points for the Bears will be a big key for the Bucs if they hope to hold off the Bears in Johnson City Thursday evening.
Mercer has been led this season by an experienced backcourt, with Jestin Lewis (12.1 PPG, ) and Phillip Leoonard (10.1 PPG, 4.8 APG, 3.9 RPG) leading the backcourt. Demetre Rivers () rounds out the trio of starters in the Mercer backcourt, as he is in his first year as a starter for Mercer.
Leonard is not the kind of guard that shows up all glitz-and-glamour on a stats sheet like ETSU's Guyn and Cromer, however, he's the player that makes the Bears tick and without him, Mercer's record would not be 14-4 at this point in 2015-16. Leonard posted a career-high 23 points in non-conference win over Appalachian State, and comes in leading the team with 4.9 assists-per-game, which ranks him second in the SoCon in assists-per-game so far this season.
Having a guard like Leonard is vital in many aspects of the team dynamic, and it isn't just on the offensive end either. In fact, Leonard has proven to be one of Mercer's best on the defensive end of the floor as well.
From a scoring standpoint this season, Leonard has posted double figures in 10 games this season, including each of the past three outings. He is coming off a 14-point effort in the overtime win over Wofford last Saturday, while also dishing out four assists in the win.
While Leonard is the engine of the offense, Lewis is a player that has the ability to score points in a hurry, and if the Orange and Black are trailing, he can get them back into it in a hurry, or stake them to a big lead.
Lewis, a senior like Leonard, leading the team in scoring. Lewis is not only effective from the perimeter, but also can score in a variety of different ways for the Bears, including getting to the free throw line.
Lewis enjoyed his best game of the season in a narrow loss at Auburn back on Dec. 15, as he posted a career-high 28 points. Lewis loves playing SEC foes, as he posted 21 points the next time out in a win over Arkansas.
This season, Lewis has found his way into double figures a total of 12 times this season, and his 28-point effort against Auburn eclipsed his previous career-high of 18 points, which was established in a 71-70 loss at ETSU on Jan. 8, 2015. Lewis will no doubt be a big key for the Bears this evening, as he has been outstanding since the start of Southern Conference play, having posted double-figure scoring performances. Lewis' 18 points last time out matched his career-high against SoCon foes, which was the game against the Bucs last season.
Lewis comes into the matchup having made 34.3% (34-of-99) from three-point land this season. Lewis' 34 triples this season leads the Bears, and unlike ETSU, the Bears struggle shooting the ball from long-range, having made just 34.4% (107-of-311) from three-point land this season.
Rounding out the trio of starters in the backcourt for the Bears will be Demetre Rivers (8.5 PPG, 3.0 RPG), who like Leonard, excels on the defensive end of the floor. In a recent 91-80 win at The Citadel, Rivers, a native of Goose Creek, S.C., posted a career-high 17 points to account for one of his nine games in double figures this season. His best effort in non-conference play came in a win over Alcorn State, finishing with 15 points and a career-high six rebounds. Rivers is a good athlete and is a guard that doesn't mind crashing the boards for Hoffman's Bears.
Three of the most significant players coming off the bench for the Bears are in the backcourt, starting with Jordan Strawberry (6.9 PPG, 2.3 RPG), Ethan Stair (6.2 PPG, 4.3 RPG) and Lawrence Brown (2.5 PPG, 1.8 RPG) are all solid performers off the pine for the Bears. Strawberry has a pair of standout performances in conference play, including a 24-point effort off the bench in the loss at Chattanooga, while posting 19 points the next time out in the win over The Citadel. Brown is an excellent athlete and good defensive performer and Stair is one of the best freshman guards in the SoCon.
The focal point of Bob Hoffman-coached teams has been frontcourt play, and when you look back at some of the teams Hoffman has had in Macon, it's easy to see When speaking of the Mercer front court, it starts with 6-6 Stephon Jelks (12.0 PPG, 9.4 RPG) South Carolina transfer Desmond Ringer (7.6 PPG, 5.0 RPG), as the newcomer has been a huge boon to the Mercer offense this season.
Ringer comes into Thursday night's Southern Conference showdown looking to continue his strong play through his first 18 games as a Bear, as he enters the contest ranking tops on the team and sixth in the Southern Conference in blocks, averaging 0.9 block per outing. He had the best game of his career last time out against Wofford, posting 21 points on a near perfect night, going 10-for-11 from the field, which included the tying shot to send the game to overtime and the game-winner in the 70-69 OT win.Ringer's 62.2 FG% ranks him second in the SoCon through the first 18 games this season.
Jelks enters the contest as Mercer's second-leading scorer this season, and has been among the most efficient scorers in the Southern Conference in 2015-16. He also enters the contest as the SoCon's top rebounder, averaging a 9.4 caroms-per-game. Jelks had a career-high 24 points and 17 boards en route to Southern Conference Player of the Week honors in a 91-80 win at The Citadel.
Despite not having a player named to the preseason all-conference scroll, Jelks is certainly having an all-conference season, including seven double-doubles, three games with 20 or more points, and has four games in which he has 15 or more boards.
He is shooting 44% from the field so far in 2015-16 and is one of the best athletes in the Southern Conference. Jelks is a solid shooter from beyond the arc this season, having connected on 35.7% (25-of-70) from three-point range in 2015-16.
WHO WINS ETSU 78, MERCER 74