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Sam’s Mid-Major Crush of the Week: The Mercer Bears

Mercer is potentially the best team in the state of Georgia

NCAA Basketball: Mercer at Georgia Tech Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

I’m continuing a theme from last week: making jokes about a mid-major team being the best team in their home state. Western Kentucky fell to Louisville last Wednesday, which killed my fun, but that doesn’t mean I can’t beat old, dead jokes into the ground.

That all being said, Mercer has a bit more of a legitimate claim to “Best Team in the State of Georgia,” as they’ve beaten Georgia Tech in Atlanta (which looks even more impressive because Georgia Tech EMBARRASSED Kentucky, yes that Kentucky) and Georgia State in Macon and has another trip to the capital to tango with Georgia State (again) on Dec. 16. They’re one Bulldog-shaped opponent from claiming Peach State dominance (stop ducking the Bears, you Athens-based cowards).

The Bears are a cool 5-0 behind some really, really good shooting. Like, borderline top 10 in the nation 3-point shooting (11th, per KenPom), shooting 45.1% from beyond the arc (in D-1 games, as KenPom doesn’t track stats against non-D1 competitions for rankings purposes). They’re lead by junior center and South Carolina transfer Felipe Haase (13 of 29 from deep), junior guard Jeff Gary (10 of 19 from deep) and senior guard Ross Cummings (17 of 31 from deep). That’s uh... pretty good. Pretty, pretty, pretty good. Five players (four of them starters) are averaging over 12 points per game. Starting point guard Neftali Alvarez has 33 assists through five games and is elite at getting to the free-throw line, averaging over seven fouls drawn per 40 minutes of game time. Oh, and for kicks, he makes them.

A player I want to highlight in particular is (prepares to do worst Rothstein bit impression) Leon Ayers. Glue Guy. He’s averaging 13.2 points per game and posting pretty incredible rebounding and assist numbers for a 6-foot-6 wing player who isn’t exactly lighting it up from 3 alongside his teammates, and who isn’t getting starts. The definition of a great spark off the bench. Oh, he’s also playing great defense, too. I can already see the shitty Rothstein tweet.

Team stats time. In addition to the eye-popping 3-point shooting numbers, the things Mercer excels at usually lead to long-term season success. The Bears are keeping opponents off the offensive glass and don’t have gaudy-bad turnover numbers. They’re also ranked 85th in both defensive block percentage and steal percentage, meaning they’re playing ridiculously tough defense. There’s conflicting opinions on the old adage that defense wins you championships, but it certainly doesn’t hurt if you can get stops, especially when you need them.

What can we fix here? Mercer looks really solid on paper and isn’t doing any one particular thing miserably. The only really “bad” thing is that they’re playing at a pretty high tempo (again, only against D1 opponents, and KenPom efficiency numbers inherently tend to favor slower tempo teams), but honestly, if they can play at this speed and keep the defense up against the level of competition they’ll see in conference this season, good things will come. I guess the only other thing is that they’ve allowed a lot of free throws so far (78 team fouls and 74 opponent free throw attempts in five games, three of which were against non Division 1 competition), so if they could cool it with the fouls before they have to play guys like Mike Bothwell and Jalen Slawson, that’d be ideal. But if they stay hot from distance, they may not need to even bother worrying about that.

The Southern Conference has a LOT of good teams this year, and unfortunately I’m not sure there’s a path to multiple bids for this conference. Mercer will be duking it out with Furman, UNC-Greensboro, and Wofford (aka the regular suspects) to earn the Southern bid. I’d like to think Mercer has a chance, especially after what UNC-Greensboro has looked out of the gate and the fact that Wofford has yet to play a Division 1 opponent.

Furman hasn’t exactly beat anyone either, and Mercer definitely has the best win of these supposed top four (Georgia Tech away) and the second best win (Georgia State) to boot. Mercer takes on VMI and Georgia Southern as a warm-up for the aforementioned second bout with Georgia State in Atlanta in a few weeks. I think that game will tell us a lot about this Bears team. Georgia State had a miserable shooting night when they came to Macon (22 of 34 from the charity stripe, 5 of 18 from 3, 16 of 39 from two). The Bears had a hand in playing defense well, but they can’t count on the same bad performance, especially from the free-throw line. They also grabbed a whopping 17(!!!!) offensive rebounds and gave themselves a lot of second chance opportunities. Again, it’s not something you want to count on all the time, especially if it seems like it’s going to be an outlier and not a consistent dominance of the offensive glass.

If they can go into a tough in-state matchup after already beating the team once this season and walk out with the season sweep, I’ll feel a lot better about picking them to win the Southern Conference. They’ll need to stay hot, because they get Wofford, UNC-Greensboro, and Furman in three of their first four conference matchups. Come out of that stretch worse for wear, and the chances of making March look pretty slim (barring, of course, miracle March runs that happen every year).

Mercer has all the pieces to represent this conference, though. A good point guard, sharp shooting off-ball guards, a big that is an elite rebounder and floor spacer who’s brought his former SEC-level game to the Southern and hasn’t missed a step. You can’t ask for much more than that.

Now they just need to put it together in the conference slate. I know I’ll have my eye on them, and I think America should, too. We aren’t too far removed from Mercer upsetting Duke in March Madness. Okay, six and a half years is a long time, especially considering 2020 has been its own millennium. But I still remember watching that game. This Mercer team is good enough to make March memories. But so is the competition. They’ll have to keep up the hot start if they want to sit on top come Selection Sunday.