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Game Preview: Mercer set to visit Davidson

Mercer and Davidson will clash Monday evening in North Carolina.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Coaches: Bob McKillop (217-194/27th yr at Davidson 498-300); Bob Hoffman (148-98/8th season at Mercer)
Last Time They Met: Davidson 80, Mercer 50 (Dec. 12, 1970)
Series: Davidson leads 1-0
Player To Watch (Mercer): G--Phillip Leonard (13.7 PPG, 5.7 APG)
Player To Watch (Davidson): G--Jack Gibbs (26.5 PPG, 2.6 RPG)
Records: Mercer (3-0); Davidson (2-0)

When you think back over some of the top moments from the NCAA Tournament over the past decade, two of the images that immediate images that fill most of our minds are not the teams cutting down the nets at the end, but the upsets from the opening couple of weekends of the tournament. Both Mercer and Davidson left indelible imprints on the minds of the nation over the past decade, joining the likes of VCU and Florida Gulf Coast, who also captivated the nation with their magical runs in the postseason during that time frame.

The memory of Stephen Curry leading the Davidson Wildcats to the Elite Eight in 2008, or Kevin Cannavari's best rendition of the "Nay-nay" following Mercer's win over Duke a couple of years ago are two memories that will likely stand the test of time for many.

When Bob Hoffman's 3-0 Bears travel to meet Bob McKillop's 2-0 Wildcats on Monday night, it will be a game between a pair of programs that represent the ‘old' and ‘new' in the Southern Conference. The Wildcats won a league-standard 12 Southern Conference titles during two different stints as league members before moving on to the Atlantic 10 following the 2013-14 season.

In what was Davidson's last season in the SoCon, was also Mercer's final season as a member of the Atlantic 10. In March of 2008, Davidson was busy making its deepest run ever in the NCAA Tournament, advancing all the way to the Elite Eight before losing 56-53 to eventual national champion Kansas. It was during that same month that Bob Hoffman arrived in Macon from Norman, hoping to help re-generate some excitement and build a basketball tradition at Mercer--a place that had only minimal basketball success prior to his arrival.

Though Davidson was successful and had a rich tradition when Bob McKillop arrived on the banks of Lake Norman, it was a Wildcats program that was in the doldrums when the native of Long Island New York arrived back in 1989. The Wildcats certainly struggled in McKillop's first season, which saw Davidson play as an independent, Davidson won only four games.

It would take him a good four seasons to begin the Davidson basketball program into the mid-major power program it is today. Four wins in the first season as an independent was followed by 10, 11 and 14. The 1992-93 season would mark Davidson's first in the Southern Conference, as the Wildcats went .500, posting a 14-14 overall record and a 10-8 finish in the SoCon--good enough for fifth in the overall league standings.

The 1993-94 season would be the first in what would become 13 twenty-win seasons for McKillop. In the 1995-96 season, Davidson had one of the best seasons in program history, which included a 14-0 record in the regular-season of league play, sporting a double-digit winning margin in league games. The Southern Confernece Tournament in Greensboro was supposed to be a coronation, as McKillop looked to win his first Southern Conference crown as a coach, but it wasn't to be, as Western Carolina posted one of the biggest upsets in Southern Conference history, with a 69-60 title-game win over the Wildcats.

It wouldn't be until the 1997-98 season that McKillop would get the breakthrough, leading the Wildcats back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1986 that the Wildcats would qualify for the Big Dance. Players like Mark Donnelly, Ali Ton and Ben Ebong were able to power the Wildcats past Appalachian State in the SoCon title game in Greensboro.

McKillop would go on to lead the Wildcats to six more Southern Conference titles, claiming crowns in 2002, ‘06, ‘07, ‘08, ‘12 and ‘13. No one will forget that magical run in the NCAA Tournament of 2008, which saw the Wildcats beat Gonzaga (82-76), Georgetown (74-70) and Wisconsin (73-56) before the 59-57 loss to Kansas ended the run.

For Bob Hoffman, the Mercer program was in tatters by the time Mark Slonaker left. Hoffman did have a nice facility to play in, and that would begin to bring in recruits that would begin to change the direction of Mercer basketball.

Prior to joining the Southern Conference, Mercer had been proud, charter members of the Atlantic Sun Conference, which was formerly known as the Trans-America Athletic Conference, or the TAAC.

In 2011-12, the Mercer basketaball program, which hadn't been all that successful over about a three-decade span outside the 2002-03 season, which saw the Bears win the regular-season A-Sun title, would start to turn things around, and it turned out to be a case of perfect timing fo Hoffman's Bears basketball team, with so much else going on to try and get the Bears ready to make a solid resume' together for inclusion in the SoCon.

Hoffman's Bears would begin to have some success, and with the Atlantic Sun basketball tournament taking place in the immaculate surroundings of the University Center (now Hawkins Arena), if the Bears could experience any kind of success during the regular season, they would have a chance to make just their second appearance in the NCAA Tournament in school history and first appearance since the mid 1980s and just the program's third overall.

The Bears would finish the regular-season as the runner-up to former A-Sun power Belmont in the league's final standings, and would head into the tournament as the No. 2 seed. After suffering a loss in the semifinals to No. 6 Florida Gulf-Coast, the Bears would fail to garner a bid to the NCAA or NIT tournaments, however, the Tournament did come calling, and the Bears would gladly accept the invite.

The Bears had a good mix of youth, size and athleticism, which would make the Bears a force in the A-Sun in its final few years.

Players like 6'11 Daniel Coursey, who set the single-season and career blocked shots records during his time in the Orange and Black, two-time A-Sun Player of the Year Langston Hall, who was a lock-down defender, combo guard/forward Jakob Gollon, who was the guy who could do a number of things, including getting the loose ball or the key rebound-to-knocking down the key perimeter shots, and Colorado's Mr. Basketball Bud Thomas, who was most known for his prowess as a perimeter threat.

However, if there was one thing the former Oklahoma University and Kelvin Sampson assistant Hoffman knew, it was defense, and not many teams have defended as well in the nation over the past three years as the Bears have. In the CIT, Bears would play exceptionally well, taking down Tennessee State (68-60), Georgia State (64-59), Old Dominion (79-73), Fairfield (64-59) and Utah State (70-67) to claim the A-Sun's and school's first postseason tournament title. The Bears, who finished with a 27-15 record, posted their most wins and most games in a single season in school history.

In 2012-13, the imrprovement continued on the hardwood, as the Bears dominated in the regular-season to capture the A-Sun title, as the Bears would do so by posting a 14-4 regular-season mark to edge out Florida Gulf-Coast and USC Upstate in the league's final standings.

The Bears went into the conference tournament as the top overall seed, however, in the title game against Florida Gulf-Coast, the Bears dropped an 88-75 decision to a team that would advance all the way to the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Touurnament before bowing out.

However, as a result of the regular-season A-Sun title, Hoffman's Bears were automatic qualfiers to the National Invitational Tournament, or NIT. The Bears' first-round opponent would be Cuonzo Martin's Tennessee Volunteers, and by this time, the Bears had become known as giant killers, having already slain Florida State (61-56) and Alabama (66-59) during the regular-season. Led by Travis Smith's 25 points, the Volunteers would become another notch on Mercer's belt, as the Bears would stun the Thompson-Boling Arena crowd with a 75-67 win over the Vols.

The NIT appearance for the Bears, however, would end in the next round, as the Bears made a second trip to Utah in a year's time, traveling to Provo to meet Brigham Young out of the Mountain West Conference. The Cougars would post a 90-71 win over Hoffman's Bears, who finished the season with another impressive ledger, going 24-12.

The 2013-14 basketaball season would not only be the final one for the Bears as members of the Atlantic Sun, but also for four seniors that had helped Mercer gain admission into the SoCon during the previous summer. It was that team's resume' that played a huge role in the Bears being chosen for membership, but no one could have predicted such success at the precise time it was needed. Sometimes in athletics, luck is needed and that's exactly what was the case as far as the timing of it was concerned.

The Bears, though, despite winning a CIT in 2012 and a regular-season title and an NIT game in 2013, still coveted the grand prize and that was a trip to NCAA Tournament, which would solidify their inclusion to the conference in the minds of SoCon Commissioner John Iamarino and Associate Commissioner and Director of Basketball Operations Geoff Cabe.

The Bears went out and saved the best for last, winning a share of the regular-season conference title. In 2013-14, however, the General Shale Brick Atlantic Sun Tournament was a campus site tournament, and despite winning a share of the regular-season title, would have to travel to conference co-champion Florida Gulf-Coast because the Eagles held the regular-season tiebreaker, should both teams make it to the final.

That would be the exact scenario, however, the Eagles, who were playing on their home floor Alico Arena, where they were nearly unbeatable, were no match for the defense-minded Bears, as Mercer would capture its 25th win of the season and third NCAA Tournament berth with a 69-64 win in Fort Myers, to hand the Eagles their first loss in front of their home fans all season.

The Bears had done it. They had qualified for the NCAA Tournament, already making the SoCon selection committee look like geniuses, but the Bears weren't done. Despite 25 wins and a first trip to the NCAA Tournament since 1985, the No. 14 seeded Bears had one more trick up their sleeves.

Facing No. 3 Duke in a second round game in Raleigh, the Bears captured some of that shooting mojo that Curry displayed some six years earlier against Gonzaga and Georgetown under the same roof en route to leading the Wildcats to the Sweet 16.

Though no player put up a gaudy 40-point effort like Curry did against Gonzaga, what Mercer did do was post five players in double figures to go on to a shocking 78-71 win over the star-studded Blue Devils, which featured the likes of freshman sensation Jabari Parker, who was held to 14 points on just 4-of-14 shooting by that stingy Bears defense. The Blue Devils of course went on to win the national title last season, still smarting from their ‘Mercer moment.'

Reserve guard Kevin Canevari's dance showed he was doing more than just studying, and that Mercer was a basketball program that knew it belonged where it was. Though the Bears would lose in third round of the NCAA Tournament to Tennessee (83-63), which was the team the Bears had defeated a year earlier.

Last season was both a new beginning for both Davidson and Mercer, with the Wildcats competing for the first time ever in the Atlantic 10 Conference, while Mercer took the hardwood for the first time in the Southern Conference.

The Atlantic 10 is not only considered the strongest mid-major conference in the land, it also considered a Top 5 conference in all of college basketball. The Wildcats won the regular-season crown, proving their pedigree in a league that featured the likes of mid-major powerhouses like Dayton and VCU. Davidson posted an impressive 14-4 record in league play in its first in its new league. The Wildcats were selected to the NCAA Tournament as an at-large qualifier for the first time in the history of the program after Davidson was knocked out in the conference tournament.

But when McKillop's Wildcats ran into Fran McCaffery's Iowa Hawkeyes, the battle between the two former Southern Conference coaches (McCaffery coached at UNCG from 2000-05), the Hawkeyes blasted the Wildcats by 31.

Interestingly, McKillop's Wildcats were given little respect, picked 12th in the A-10's preseason poll, without a player named to the first three all-conference teams. That kind of lack of respect fueled the Wildcats to a 14-4 league mark and a 24-8 record in its first season in its new, stronger league.

Mercer was given a little more respect in its first season as a Southern Conference member, despite having to replace all five starters from that team that beat Duke in the NCAA Tournament Second Round game a year earlier, as the Bears were picked fourth in the 10-team league.

The Bears would finish third in the league standings, winning 19 games, including a 13-5 conference mark. Hoffman's Bears just missed the 20-win plateau, bowing out in the conference tournament semifinals with a loss to Furman. It was still good enough to get the Bears a fourth-straight postseason tournament invite, as the Bears participated in the CBI. The Bears defeated Stony Brook, 72-70, before seeing its season end with a 71-69 loss to Louisiana Monroe.

Now, the two programs meet on the hardwood for just the second time in the history of the series. The only other meeting between the Wildcats and Bears came in the 1970 season, with Mercer dropping an 80-50 contest at Davidson.

Since the 2011-12 season, Davidson has won 97 games as a program, while Mercer has posted 93 victories. The teams meet as unbeatens this season, and it should be a fun matchup to watch between to of Mid-Major basketball's most successful programs in recent seasons. Davidson is the old-guard, while Mercer is the new, emerging power in mid-major basketball. It makes for an interesting matchup on Monday night.

Davidson and Mercer have two of the most hostile environments to visit for opponents in mid-major college basketball. Mercer has been nearly unbeatable at Hawkins Arena since the start of the 2011-12 season, posting a 62-9 home record. Meanwhile, Davidson has won 22 of its last 23 games at home dating back to the start of the 2013-14 season, including an amazing 144-23 mark since the start of the 2003-04 season.