WHO: No. 7 Mercer (18-13, 8-10 SoCon) vs. No. 10 The Citadel (10-21, 3-15 SoCon)
WHAT: 2016 Southern Conference Tournament/96th Edition
WHEN: Friday Mar. 4, 2016/7:30 p.m. approx.
WHERE: Asheville, N.C./US Cellular Arena (6,000)
Talent:Darren Goldwater (play-by-play)/Dean Keener (Color Analyst)
PREVIEW: Mercer, which lost its last seven games of the season, and The Citadel, which lost its final final 10 games of the season,face off in the second first round matchup at the US Cellular Arena, making for an intriguing clash in the nightcap of the opening round of the Southern Conference Tournament in Friday's second matchup. Mercer's last win came in an 88-72 win over The Citadel back on Feb. 6 at Hawkins Arena, as the Bears got an emotional win over the Bulldogs in what was the first game following the tragic murder of Jibri Bryan at a local convenience store in Macon.
It is somewhat of an uncanny coincidence that the number of consecutive losses to end the season matches the two teams' seeds in the 2016 Southern Conference Tournament.
Mercer also suspended its leading scorer (Jestin Lewis) and leading rebounder (Desmond Ringer) against Chattanooga and that suspension remained intact for the remainder of the season, as the Bears have failed to win since. The Bears also claimed the earlier meeting with a 91-80 win in Charleston in early January.
Though The Citadel and Mercer have not met in the Southern Conference Tournament, The Citadel head coach Duggar Baucom (10-21/1st season at The Citadel) will see a familiar face on the other sidelines in the opening round of the Southern Conference Tournament, as he will once again face off against eighth-year head coach Bob Hoffman (163-111/8th season at Mercer) in the opening round of the 2016 Southern Conference Tournament.
Last season, Baucom was the coach of VMI, and he squared off against Mercer in the opening round of the tournament, and it was all Bears in the final quarterfinal game of the 2015 tournament, as Mercer picked up an 89-61 opening-round rout of Baucom's Keydets. Baucom, who is now in his 13th season as a head coach, has posted a 198-200 record in his career, which includes time as head coach at Division II Tusculum College, VMI and now The Citadel. Baucom has also spent time as an assistant at both Davidson and Western Carolina in the Southern Conference.
It is the second Southern Conference Tournament for Mercer, which saw it reach the semifinal round of the Southern Conference Tournament last season, as the Bears dropped a 52-49 decision to upstart No. 10 seed Furman in its first Southern Conference Tournament, as the Bears saw a disappointing end to the Southern Conference campaign in the semifinals. In each of the past four seasons, the Bears have reached at least the semifinal round of a conference tournament, dating back to their final two seasons in the Atlantic Sun, and have garnered a postseason invite to a non-conference sponsored postseason tournament.
To do that this season, the Bears will need to win two-straight games, defeating The Citadel in the opening game and then turning around and knocking off No. 2 seed East Tennessee State on Saturday to make that happen for a fifth-straight campaign. The last time the Bears won back-to-back games during the 2015-16 season came back on Feb. 1 and Feb. 6, with wins over Samford (W, 85-70) and The Citadel (W, 88-72). However, the team dynamics have obviously seen the team dynamics change vastly since then. A win over The Citadel would get the Bears to at least 19 wins for a fifth-straight season.
The Citadel is a charter member of the Southern Conference and the Bulldogs enter the 2016 Southern Conference Tournament looking to put an end to a 10-game losing skid. Friday night's clash between the Bulldogs and Bears will mark the 17th all-time meeting between the two programs, with the Bears holding a 12-4 all-time series edge.
The Citadel is led by its All-SoCon guard Derrick Henry (16.2 PPG, 4.2 RPG), who comes into the tournament as one of three Bulldogs in the starting lineup to average in double figures. Junior guard Warren Sledge (10.3 PPG, 2.3 APG, 2.2 RPG) and senior forward Quinton Marshall (11.5 PPG, 3.8 RPG) also join Henry in the starting lineup as double-figure scorers for the Bulldogs.
Henry, a transfer from Winthrop, is the player that makes The Citadel go, as he has been near the top of the SoCon in scoring nearly the entire season, and helps fuel a Bulldog offense that leads the league in scoring offense (86.6 PPG) and three-pointers made (354). Both its scoring offense and three-pointers made were the second-most in college basketball this season for The Citadel. Overall as a team, The Citadel has set single-season school records for points (2,684), three-pointers made (354) and steals (282). The Bulldogs' 915 field goals are also a single-season program record, while needing just 13 more assists to set a new season mark in that particular category.
In the two meetings between the Bears and Bulldogs this season, Henry posted had two of his rare sub-par performances, scoring under double figures twice, with seven and six points, respectively, in both of those meetings. Those two performances, which saw Henry score less than double figures, marked two of the four games this season in which he was held under 10 points in a game, as he finished the season with 27 games in double figures.
Sledge finished the 2015-16 season ranking ninth overall in the SoCon in three-pointers made (64 triples made), while point guard P.J. Boutte (7.9 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 5.6 APG) enters the Southern Conference Tournament ranking first in the Southern Conference in assists-per-game (5.6 APG), and finished the season ranking third overall in steals-per-game (1.6 SPG).
Marshall is the most veteran of Baucom's players heading into Friday night's contest, and the senior comes in having made and will be a key factor underneath the basket for the Bulldogs. He comes into Friday night's contest making his 70th start in his Citadel career, and will team with talented freshman Zane Nadjawi (7.2 PPG. 4.4 RPG) underneath the basket.
Mercer comes in with a different dynamic to its team since the loss of Ringer and Lewis, and the team has been centered around one of the best players in the Southern Conference, in Stephon Jelks (12.2 PPG, 8.6 RPG). The 6-6 Jelks has been among the toughest matchups for opponents in the SoCon this season, and with the loss of its two top scorers, more has been placed upon the shoulders of Jelks over the final eight games of the season.
He has seemingly been unphased, however, as he has scored in double figures in six of the past eight games. Jelks is the league's top rebounding presence in the paint, and he enters Friday night's contest with the Bulldogs with 47 three-point field goals this season, which is tied for the team lead with Lewis.
In his two games against The Citadel this season, Jelks has posted two double-doubles against the Bulldogs this season, with two of his best performances coming against The Citadel. Jelks had 24 points and 17 rebounds in the 91-80 win in Charleston back on Jan. 9, while finishing with 20 points and 12 boards in the second clash between the two.
Teaming with Jelks underneath the basket for the Bears will be seven-footer Andrew Fishler (2.9 PPG, 1.8 RPG), who has seen his game drastically improve since being inserted into the starting lineup for the Bears. Fishler has become a more efficient scorer underneath the basket as of late, and had eight points and five boards the last time out against UNCG. Another effective option off the bench for the Bears could be Lawrence Brown (2.9 PPG, 2.2 RPG), who is a veteran that will be required to provide some offensive production off the bench if the Bears hope to be successful in the 2016 SoCon Tournament.
The trio set to start in the backcourt are Phillip Leonard (10.4 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 4.8 APG), Ethan Stair (6.4 PPG, 4.1 RPG) and Demetre Rivers (9.3 PPG, 3.3 RPG) round out the starting contingent for the Bears. Stair has been impressive at times, and his perimeter game could cause problems for the Bulldogs, especially in transition, if left unguarded.
Jordan Strawberry (8.4 PPG, 2.5 RPG) Strawberry has been a streaky shooter for the Bears this season from beyond the arc, but if he can get hot, the Bears could be a dangerous team in the 2016 SoCon Tournament.
Matchup To Watch: Perhaps the biggest matchup to watch in this contest will be the one in the backcourt between the two point guards, in The Citadel's P.J. Boutte and Mercer's Phillip Leonard. Boutte is one of the quickest guards in the league, and Leonard is Mercer's second-leading scorer and has looked to score more as of late. If Boutte can keep his turnovers to a manageable level in this one, he has the slight advantage in quickness, and penetrating into the teeth of that zone will be key for the Bulldogs' scoring-wise on Friday night. Both Boutte and Leonard are two of the top assist-men in the Southern Conference this season, ranking No. 1 and 3 and that category, respectively, this season.
Stat Watch: The Citadel comes into the contest leading the league in three-pointers made (354), but rank last in the league in three-point field goal percentage, canning just 32.1% of its attempts from long range this season. Mercer, which has made 195 triples this season, has shot them at a decent 35.5% clip this season to rank fifth overall in three-point field goal percentage. The Citadel's 9.1 steals-per-game lead the SoCon, while Mercer's 5.1 steals-per-game rank dead last in the SoCon. Mercer holds foes to 68.5 PPG this season, which ranks third in the SoCon in scoring defense, while The Citadel leads the SoCon in scoring offense, averaging 86.6 PPG. Mercer sports a league leading +9.0 rebound margin, while The Citadel ranks last in the SoCon in rebound margin (-8.9). Rounding out the notable stats for the contest is turnover margin, which The Citadel comes in leading the SoCon in turnover margin, with a +3.26 disparity, while the Bears enter the tournament ranking last in the SoCon, at -1.26.
Who Wins: Mercer 88, The Citadel 82