While Furman has grabbed much of the non-conference headlines on the hardwood with wins over Loyola and Villanova, there are other programs in the Southern Conference that have made it one of the emerging conferences in mid-major basketball.
Flashback to the 2014 NCAA Tournament. Mercer, then in its last season as an ASUN member, pulled a shocker, upending No. 3 seed Duke in a classic March Madness moment.
The man at the helm of the program now, as it was then, is Bob Hoffman. Earlier this season, Hoffman notched his 200th win as the head coach of the Bears in a win over Tennessee-Martin. Over the past decade, Mercer is the winningest program in the state of Georgia. That means the Bears have won more games in the past 10 years than the University of Georgia, Georgia State, and Georgia Tech. Mercer has won 202 games in that time — all under Hoffman. Georgia State ranks second with 188 victories and Georgia is third with 179.
Hoffman has been at the helm of the Bears the whole time, taking over a struggling Mercer basketball program after Mark Slonaker departed in 2008. Since then, Mercer has become a consistent winner in both the ASUN and the SoCon over the past decade.
Under the direction of Hoffman, the Bears had a breakthrough season in 2011-12, winning the CollegeInsider.com Tournament and establishing a school record with 27 wins. They’ve now won 19 or more games in six of the past seven seasons. The Bears also have participated in the CIT, CBI, NIT, and NCAA Tournament since, winning games in each.
The Mercer basketball program has had to endure the kind of adversity no program should ever have to deal with — the murder of a player. On Feb. 2, 2016, former Mercer senior forward Jibri Bryan was shot and killed at a local convenience store within walking distance of the Mercer campus.
Although tragic and a situation that no coach nor program wants to find itself in, Mercer basketball has grown from the adversity it endured. Hoffman is probably faced with his toughest on-the-floor task this season, as he has to replace a cast of veterans that helped the Bears make a remarkable run down the stretch a year ago to snatch the No. 4 seed in the SoCon Tournament following a rocky start to league play.
Gone are all five starters from a year ago, including Jordan Strawberry and Stephon Jelks, who were pillars of the program during such a difficult process of grief. But in talking with Hoffman not long after his 200th win, he is optimistic about 2018-19 and what this new cast of players can do in 2018-19.
“I think we have a chance to be really good,” he said. “Once we get a little more understanding of what our strengths are, and the ones that I think we as coaches have a good feel for, but continue to grow and get acclimated and to understand what those expectations are.”
Mercer is off to a 4-4 start this season, dropping a 79-69 decision in its Southern Conference opener at The Citadel in its most recent outing. The Bears had narrow losses at Georgia State (L, 60-62) and also at NC State (L, 74-78).
In comparison with some Mercer teams of the past, the Bears appear to be a more guard-oriented team this season. Djordje Dimitrijevic, Ross Cummings, Ethan Stair and DJ Peavy having all contributed well in the early going for the Bears backcourt this season.
“We have got to shoot the ball well for us to be good and also we have to continue to grow our defensive principles and get more sound in how we go about things possession by possession,” Hoffman said. “To get stops and rebounding is going to be critical for this team because sometimes we’re playing a small lineup and that lends itself to having to be aggressive and rebound the ball well.“
Help is on the way, however, next season with the addition of 6-11 Maciej Bender from West Virginia. He played in all 35 games last season for the Mountaineers, which included a start against Villanova.
In a tough SoCon this season, you would be wise not to forget about the winningest team in the Peach State over the past decade as a contender before the dust settles in the 2018-19 regular season. The Bears have games coming up against Florida Atlantic (Dec. 5) and Georgia Southern (Dec. 8).