The Mercer Bears (18-14, 11-7 SoCon), will continue their basketball campaign in Phoenix, AZ. when they take on Grand Canyon in the opening round of the College Basketball Invitational (CBI). Mercer and GCU will tip-off at 10 p.m. EST Wednesday night at GCU Arena. Tonight will mark the first-ever meeting between the Bears and Antelopes.
The Antlelopes are 16-2 at home, with their only losses against San Diego and New Mexico State. GCU’s best wins of the season came in conference by sweeping Utah Valley, who currently are No. 84 in the RPI.
Mercer’s best win of the season was a 77-74 win over eventual Southern Conference champion UNC Greensboro. The Bears were one of just three teams to knock off UNCG in conference play.
GCU (22-11, 9-5 WAC ), a member of the WAC Conference, is under the direction of former Phoenix Suns legendary long-range shooter “Thunder” Dan Majerle, who is in his fifth year at the helm of the basketball program. Majerle has led the Antelopes to 44 wins in the past couple of seasons, and is quickly building GCU into a force to be reckoned with in the Western Athletic Conference: The Antelopes made an appearance in the WAC Tournament title game as the No. 3 seed, but lost to top-seeded New Mexico State, 72-58.
The Bears come in veterans of postseason basketball under head coach Bob Hoffman. Of course, no one will forget the Bears’ 78-71 triumph over Duke in the 2014 NCAA Tournament, but the Bears have won games in the CollegeInsider.com Tournament, National Invitational Tournament and the CBI since 2012.
The Bears are competing in their sixth postseason tournament in the past seven seasons. GCU, on the other hand, has won 20 or more games in four of the past six seasons. The Antelopes are looking to build prestige quickly as a one of the new kids on the block in mid-major basketball.
Matchups to Watch:
Mercer has been without its top scorer Ria’n Holland for the last month, but despite missing him in the lineup, Mercer has reeled off eight wins in its past nine games.
The Bears have a talented, versatile backcourt. Shooter Ross Cummings (8.1 PPG, 1.5 RPG), combined with the quickness of Jordan Strawberry (11.1 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 156 assists) and the overall athleticism of 6-8 guard Demetre Rivers (11.0 PPG, 3.6 RPG) makes the Bears especially tough to guard.
Cummings is the best perimeter threat for the Bears, as he comes in having connected on 42% (49-of-117) from long range this season. However, after scoring in double figures in nine-straight games, Cummings scored merely five points in his final two games of the season.
The Antelopes counter with a talented backcourt of their own, which features a talented senior tandem Joshua Braun (11.8 PPG, 3.8 RPG) and Casey Benson (9.5 PPG, 4.1 RPG). Both have been efficient leaders for GCU this season, and have been pillars of the foundation of success this season for the Antelopes. Benson, who transferred from Oregon, ranks third on the team in made three-pointers this season, with 37 made triples. He also leads the team with 145 assists.
Keep an eye on South Carolina transfer Desmond Ringer (9.1 PPG, 5.4 RPG) and all-conference performer and veteran Stephon Jelks (9.9 PPG, 7.3 RPG) in the frontcourt. Jelks is the type player that can beat a team inside or outside the paint. He is tremendous at crashing the boards for the Bears, and is the heart and soul of this Mercer team. The Bears have five players that have made at least 44 threes this season.
Countering the Bears in the paint for the Antelopes will be the big Italian Alessandro Lever (12.2 PPG, 4.5 RPG), who leads the Antelopes in scoring. Athletic sophomore Oscar Freyer (9.6 PPG, 5.3 RPG) and Keonta Vernon (8.8 PPG, 6.7 RPG) will join him. Both Freyer and Vernon are athletic, while Lever is a talented stretch-forward.
GCU 82, Mercer 74