Today is the final day of the Scanning the SoCon previews. We finish up with Mercer. I am taking over the report on Mercer at this point.
Mercer is joining the SoCon coming off what is probably the best season in program history. The Bears won the Atlantic Sun regular season title, won the Atlantic Sun tournament title and then upset Duke in the NCAA Tournament. The Bears lost seven of their best players from that squad, though, including all five senior starters.
Still, Bob Hoffman has stacked another team that thinks they can challenge in the SoCon in their first season. Predictions for the Bears have ranged all over the place- from people picking them to finish third all the way down to seventh or eighth. In the end, the media and coaches picked Mercer to finish fourth in the SoCon, behind Wofford, Chattanooga and ETSU.
The Bears had recent success against SoCon teams as well. Over the last three years, the Bears went 9-1 against conference competition. That has infused the team and the fan base with confidence as they enter the conference this year.
The best returning player is likely Ike Nwamu. He won the dunk contest at Mercer Madness when he jumped over a teammate. He is an explosive player. He also averaged 8.3 points per game a season ago. He will play one of the wing spots.
The most interesting player may be TJ Hallice. He is 6-10 and has been a solid performer in the past, though in limited action. He has developed a lot over the last three years and has been looking forward to his chance to shine. This is that chance. He has the looks (on the limited film I watched of him) of a guy that is ready to make a leap and could become a star in the SoCon.,
Andrew Fishler is a 7-1 transfer. He seems to lack some offensive prowess, but has the look of a guy who could present major defensive problems for the rest of the SoCon.
Phillip Leonard is likely to get the first look at point guard. The junior played nine minutes per game a season ago. Jestin Lewis is a junior college transfer that is likely to contend with Leonard for playing time the most. The point guard play could determine just how good this team is.
Darious Moten came to Mercer for the academics, and decided to walk on to the basketball team. Now as a 6-6 redshirt senior, Moten is looking forward to his first year starting. He is a likely starter. Moten played 12.2 minutes per game a season ago, and is hopeful that he can have a breakout season.
Mercer's schedule this year begins with a game against a non-D1 Piedmont, and then go to Seton Hall two days later. They will also participate in the Great Alaska Shootout over Thanksgiving, which will give both the SoCon and the rest of the country a chance to see what the Bears are made of in this tradition-rich tournament.
On Saturday, December 6, Mercer plays their first SoCon game. They host VMI, another SoCon newcomer. The toughest stretch of the out of conference schedule comes from December 22 to December 30. The Bears go to Tennessee, Georgia and Texas A&M. That immediately precedes playing their next three SoCon games, all of them on the road against UNCG, VMI and ETSU. That is a six game road trip, and a critical stretch for the Bears. It also means they will have wrapped up their games against VMI by their third SoCon game. They have another three game road trip at the end of January, beginning of February when they to go to Wofford, The Citadel and Furman.
This team plays four of their last six games at home, including their final two against Wofford and ETSU, and plays at Chattanooga the week before that.
The Bears may have some struggles early in the year as the team figures out the roles and who should be playing the majority of the minutes. If the Bears can get some things figured out in time for the Great Alaska Shootout, that could be a big lift for both the conference and the team.
This team will be much better by late February, and given the nature of their schedule, they play the three SoCon teams picked ahead of them in the final two weeks of the regular season, including two at home. That stretch might help the Bears track down some teams ahead of them in the standings right at the end of the year, and put them in prime position to make a run in Asheville in March.