When Mercer joined the SoCon in 2014, they were coming off an NCAA Tournament victory over Duke, but replacing five starters. All they did was finish third in the SoCon last season and make it to the semifinals of the conference tournament before falling to Furman. This year, they were replacing their best player from a year ago (Ike Nwamu) and had the look of a team looking for answers. All the Bears have done is start 11-3, beaten Arkansas, taken Auburn to the wire, and established themselves as one of the top two teams in the SoCon.
The Bears get a chance to make the next step on Tuesday night when they head into McKenzie Arena in Chattanooga to take on the SoCon favorite Mocs.
The most interesting side of the floor in Tuesday's match-up will be the Bears intense defense against the Mocs offense. The Bears have played very tough defense throughout the season. The Mocs have not been slowed down much on the offensive side of the ball. Which side gets what they want? The Mocs have proven to be very good from three point range. They made 38.6% of their three pointers on the season. The Bears defense is good against the three, allowing opponents to make 32.4% of their threes. However, opponents have scored 34.9% of their points from three, which ranks as one of the highest percentages in the country. When teams score against the Bears, they score from three point range.
That bodes well for players like Eric Robertson, who has made 46.5% of his threes. Greg Pryor has made 37.3% of his shots from long range. Pryor is also so good at driving the ball as well that he can present real problems to a defense.
The Mocs have some tough match-ups for opponents. Duke Etheridge is one of the tougher match-ups in the SoCon for many teams. He is so athletic that he can drive to the basket, yet he can also step back and shoot the three. He is big enough that he is really difficult to guard for so many people in the SoCon. He is averaging 8.8 points per game, shooting 52% from the floor and 39% from long distance.
Justin Tuoyo also is tough for a lot of teams to guard. He is 6-10, which makes him unusually tall for a SoCon player. He is averaging 9.8 points and 5.4 rebounds per game. Demetre Rivers and Desmond Ringer, who are 6-8 and 6-9, will be the ones expected to guard Tuoyo. If they can control him, that will give the Bears a very good opportunity to win the game.
Mercer's offense relies heavily on Phillip Leonard to get things going. The point guard (who will be matched up with Pryor in a truly great point guard match-up in this contest) scored 15 points with 5 rebounds and 5 assists against Samford in the conference opener. He had scored a total of 24 in the previous six games, an average of 4 points per contest. Leonard needs to get going again now that conference play has started for the Bears to get where they want to go.
Stephon Jelks has done a great job this year, leading the team in points and rebounds. He is averaging 12.1 points per game and 9.0 rebounds. Jelks' play has been so good. He is going to be a very difficult match-up for SoCon opponents. Likely, the Mocs Tre McLean will be expected to try to contain Jelks.
Jestin Lewis has averaged 11.6 points per game so far. Lewis has also been a solid player this year.
Two bench players are key contributors for the Bears. Ethan Stair has shown tremendous athleticism in and around the paint, while Jordan Strawberry continues to be an excellent point guard off the bench. He can fill up the basket.
The Bears are one of the top rebounding teams in the country and are going to go against one of the better rebounding teams in the SoCon. The Mocs will be challenged by the Bears on the boards in this one, and Mercer will need to win the battle on the glass to win.
These are the two toughest teams to figure out how to beat in the SoCon. They present match-up problems all around. The Mocs have the home court advantage, and there should be a decent crowd there on Tuesday night. The Mocs will need to knock down some threes early in the game to help spread out the Bears defense a bit so that they will then be able to get the ball to Tuoyo to work in the paint. The Bears will need to get Jelks and Leonard scoring and setting up the offense.
This game will be a battle down to the end, but the Mocs will pull it out in the end on the strength of Robertson knocking down a few threes and McLean coming up with a key defensive play. Prediction: Chattanooga 71, Mercer 64.