Yesterday's nationwide celebration of Duke's defeat was met with at least some pause in East Tennessee. Not only were the Vols denied the chance to take down the Blue Devils themselves, but now standing in the way is a Mercer team who beat Tennessee last year. This isn't your older brother's 14 seed, like the Ohio team who beat 3 seed Georgetown by knocking down 13 threes. Tennessee beat those Bobcats in the Round of 32 83-68 en route to the program's first Elite Eight. But something tells me these Bears won't go so quietly, mainly because they weren't lucky against Duke. They were good.
Mercer was the Atlantic Sun regular season champion but lost to Dunk City in the A-Sun finals, denied a spot on the dance floor. Instead they came to Knoxville to face a heartbroken Tennessee squad, also left out of the tournament. Mercer out-shot the Vols in every facet, going 50/39/76% from FG/3P/FT while the Vols went 38/29/67. 71 of their 75 points came from the starting lineup, including 25 from guard Travis Smith and a 7 of 7 shooting night for 6'10" Daniel Coursey. Tennessee led 27-24 late in the first half, but the Bears closed on a 10-4 run to take a halftime lead they would never relinquish. Kenny Hall brought the Vols within three at the under 16 and the Vols were within four with 13 to play, but back to back threes from Mercer pushed the lead to nine. Trae Golden's free throw got it back down to 50-46 with eight to play, but a 6-0 run ensured the Vols would get no closer and really ended any legitimate threat from UT in an eventual 75-67 Mercer win.
Stokes was Stokes with a 14/13, and the Vols got 20 from Golden. But Jordan McRae was 3 of 14 from the field and 1 of 7 from the arc, and the Vols lost despite a +14 rebounding advantage. Say what you will about not wanting to be there or not being ready to play, and there's some truth in both of those answers. But the biggest on-the-floor reason Tennessee lost was the way those emotions (and Mercer's shooting) manifested themselves in Tennessee's defense, which is the biggest reason we might see a different outcome tomorrow.
Travis Smith graduated, but Mercer returned essentially everyone else for 2013-14. They were battle-tested early: a 76-73 loss at Texas in the season opener, and a 96-82 loss at Oklahoma on December 2. Three days before Christmas they traveled to Ole Miss, built a 12 point halftime lead, watched the Rebels come back to lead 67-60 with six to play, then Langston Hall knocked down a three at the buzzer to give the Bears a 79-76 win.
This team loves them some overtime, playing six OT affairs this year including a pair of double overtime and one triple overtime games. Two of those OT games came against USC Upstate, who gave us all we wanted in November. Mercer beat them in overtime in the regular season, then took them down in double overtime in the A-Sun Tournament. They faced Florida Gulf Coast in the A-Sun finals again, a matchup of the two schools who split the regular season title, nearly blew an 18 point lead, but hung on to win 68-60 and punch their first ticket to the dance since 1985.
Mercer is an impressive 27-8. You're probably aware by now of their narrative: the only team in the nation to start five seniors in every game this year, seven seniors in the rotation overall. 6'4" guard Langston Hall leads the way in scoring at 14.6 plus 5.6 assists per contest; this guy's got eight inches on Chaz Williams, so you might see more Josh Richardson than Antonio Barton him. The 6'10" Coursey who hurt us last year adds 10.1 points and 6.5 rebounds. Four other players all average between eight and nine points per game.
Who they won't have is backup post 6'11" 250 lbs Monty Brown, another senior, who was knocked out of the Duke game with a concussion and will not be available against the Vols. We wish him a speedy recovery.
The box score of the Mercer-Duke game looks like the Blue Devils were the double-digit seed who just started firing and hoping from the arc but came up just short. Duke took 37 threes and made 15 of them. Long misfires gave them 16 offensive rebounds. Mercer had three.
And yet, the Bears were in it all the way and pulled ahead late thanks to clutch play from upperclassmen while Duke's youth folded. Mercer shot 55.6% from the floor; here again is some encouragement for Tennessee fans hoping to avoid a repeat performance against the Bears, because the Vols are certainly defending at a much higher level than Duke right now.
But the Bears were also disciplined and fundamentally sound: 23 of 28 at the free throw line, 16 assists to only eight turnovers. Mercer was the better team in every way, and earned that victory. They're playing with even more confidence now, and will be a tough out.
This is a team who has shot the ball very well all year. The Bears average 47.7% from the floor, 22nd best in the nation, and 16th nationally in effective field goal percentage. It all comes together for a team 7th nationally in points per possession; some of that is a byproduct of Atlantic Sun competition, but we saw what a high scoring team from that league could do to good teams last year in FGCU.
This team usually takes a lot of threes, averaging 21 per game, but was disciplined enough to only take 13 against Duke and still win. Tennessee gave up the fewest threes of any SEC team, in part because of length on the perimeter and no zone defense. That will certainly be an interesting angle to watch.
Defensively the Bears hold teams to 39.9% from the floor. This a team that's used to winning and after beating Duke will feel like they can beat anyone. Even without Monty Brown's size to go against Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon, I expect Mercer to play over their heads. It would be great if Tennessee could get off to another early double digit lead and try to take their fight, but I expect the Bears to go down swinging the whole way.
The Vols could use better three point shooting than we got yesterday, and Mercer may invite us to take them as they did Duke. If that's the case, we need to be very wise offensively. If Barton is hot, great. But Tennessee's best basketball still goes through Jarnell Stokes and great ball movement, and the Bears won't have a strong answer for the Stokes/Maymon combo inside. The Vols have to play to their strengths offensively, something we've done a great job of against Iowa and UMass, and not be baited into a different game that benefits Mercer.
But the real factor will once again be Tennessee's defense. Mercer will come in feeling very good about themselves offensively. How can Tennessee take that away? If the Vols defend the way they have been defending and contest Mercer's hot shooting, Tennessee can play this thing at their pace and dictate things to the Bears.
Tennessee's best basketball wins this game. But I expect we're going to get Mercer's best basketball too. The Vols have to be smart, be disciplined, and play the same great defense we've been playing in the month of March. We already know Mercer can beat Tennessee with so many of the same pieces on the floor. The way both teams have been playing recently I'm sure both believe they can beat anyone, and both are full of upperclassmen looking to stay on the dance floor. We'll find out who is the better team on a much bigger stage tomorrow night.