Strolling through the sports section of Barnes and Noble last week, I stumbled upon a book that resonated with me, mostly due to my interest in SoCon basketball and my proximity to Macon, GA (I live in Greenville, SC).
The book was about the 2013-14 Mercer men’s basketball team and its historic win over the Duke Blue Devils in the NCAA Tournament.
The book, titled Mercer’s Moment, was written by former Anderson Independent Mail sports reporter Daniel Shirley. Shirley, who now writes for The Athletic, was Mercer’s beat writer during its run.
But fast-forward six years from that moment and Mercer is in a different conference with a different head coach. Things went sour after that famous win over Duke and the Bears’ first few seasons in the Southern Conference have not been as successful.
The new man in charge, Greg Gary, has a different personality than his predecessor, Bob Hoffman. Gary spent eight years as a top assistant at Purdue under head coach Matt Painter, and before that as the head coach at Centenary. His experience prepared him uniquely for the moment he was about to step into as the new head coach of a program that was relatively still a new kid on the SoCon block.
Last fall at SoCon basketball media day, he waited for his moment to introduce himself to the other, more accomplished coaches in the league, instead opting to listen to what each had to say. That humility served Gary especially well in his first season as head coach at Mercer.
“I took over a great program and one that Bob Hoffman had already done a great job of building tradition,” Gary said. “Hoffman made this job what it was when I took over…an attractive situation and opportunity.”
After a 6-11 start to last season, something changed for the Bears and it resulted in an 11-3 ending to the regular season. As Mercer started to improve, the fans began returning to Hawkins Arena.
“We we were a little under-manned at times, but they kept believing in what we were doing,” Gary said. “We had a little different style of play and culture so it was a great job by all of them, especially our seniors, Ethan Stair and Djordje Dimitrijevic.”
With All-SoCon guard Ross Cummings playing in only six games due to injury, Gary’s first challenge was to make sure his leaders understood their roles. The team would now have an added collective burden to make up for the 17 PPG lost with Cummings’ absence. Mercer spent a large portion of non-conference play and the first four games of conference play trying to figure it out.
In the month of November, the key player was Stair, who began the season ranking in the top five in scoring in the SoCon, and leading the league in rebounding.
Then, Jeff Gary, the coach’s nephew, was introduced into the mix in a 72-63 win over UNC Wilmington. He gave the Bears another perimeter threat.
In its Southern Conference opener against Furman — a 64-62 loss, a new player stepped up, in West Virginia transfer Maciej Bender, who posted a career-high 19 points and 10 boards.
“We’re supposed to improve these guys as players,” Gary said. ‘But you also have to give credit to our seniors Djordje Dimitrijevic and Ethan Stair, who really stepped up and became the type leaders that could enable this program to continue that improvement and development throughout the season.”
That improvement resulted in something on Jan. 29 that no one else had done the entire season, which was hand eventual champion East Tennessee State a loss at home.
Though the season would end with a disappointing 70-56 opening round loss to No. 5 seed Western Carolina in the SoCon Tournament, there are plenty of positive vibes heading into the 2020-21 season.
Aside from Cummings, an All-SoCon player two years ago, the Bears will have will have a great situation in the backcourt despite the loss of Dimitrijevic (16.8 PPG, 111 assists) to graduation.
Jeff Gary (11.5 PPG, 2.3 RPG) and Kamar Robertson (7.0 PPG, 3.1 RPG) will be back, and Neftali Alvarez will be eligible after transferring in from Fairfield last year.
“We’re going to have some more depth at the point guard position and we’re also going to have some more speed,” Gary said. “[Alvarez] is great at beating people off the dribble and we didn’t have too many people that could beat people off the dribble last season. He can do that and he can get in the paint and finish and he makes good decisions, so that’s really going to help us.”
In the front court, the Bears welcome in Felipe Haase, who like Alvarez, sat out last season due to NCAA transfer requirements. He is a 6-9 forward from the University of South Carolina.
Haase will allow the Bears to be able to stretch the floor even more next season. He’ll be similar to the type of player that Matt Ryan was for Chattanooga last season, in that he will give the Bears a threat in the post, as well as being able to step out and shoot the three.
Last season merely gave a preview of the new era that has dawned on Mercer basketball. That day at Barnes and Noble, I bought the book to look back at that Mercer Moment, but it’s easy to buy stock in the program’s future as well.