East Tennessee State is trying to hold its ground in the Atlantic Sun Conference basketball standings with four games left in the regular season.
Mercer is shooting for a championship.
Both teams are on an uptick as they head into their rematch today in the Dome. The Bucs (9-18) have won three of their last four, while the Bears (17-9) have won four in a row and seven of eight.
ETSU coach Murry Bartow says he hasn’t spent much time analyzing the standings, which show his team tied for fifth place at 7-7. That’s just a game out of third.
“I just know we’re playing better and we’ve got four left,” Bartow said Friday. “I’d like to win the rest of them.”
The Bucs could make a statement with a win today.
At 10-3, Mercer is tied in the loss column with Florida Gulf Coast for the league lead; everyone else has at least six losses. The leaders have broken out of a logjam in the last two weeks.
Asked Friday if the seedings for the tournament on his home floor will carry great weight next month, Mercer coach Bob Hoffman wasn’t sure.
“I don’t know if they do,” he said after a shootaround in the Dome. “Over the years, so many different seeds have gotten to the finals. It seems like we have a lot of teams capable of winning this year.”
Hoffman likes the way his team has been going about its business most of the season. Among other things, the Bears have December wins at Florida State and Alabama on their resume.
“Our guys fit really well together,” said Hoffman. “They’re unselfish about what we’re trying to accomplish, and good things happen when you play basketball that way.”
The Bears are certainly putting themselves in prime position for a postseason run. They have lost only once in the last month and are fresh off a 70-59 victory Thursday night at Upstate.
The stretch started with a 19-point rout of ETSU in Macon, Ga.
“They pounded us down there. It was not even close,” said Bartow. “It’s going to take one of our best games to beat them.”
The Bucs at least have a little momentum. They led wire-to-wire in a 79-70 victory over Kennesaw State on Thursday night, giving them back-to-back wins for the first time all season.
John Walton was the surprising offensive star, with a career-high 23 points. The sophomore forward hit 8 of 9 shots and all seven of his free throws. He also blocked three shots on the other end.
Walton had never scored more than 15 in a game, but he surpassed that by halftime. His coach called it the best game of his career.
“I don’t think we can expect 20 a game from John,” said Bartow. “He’s still a work in progress, and he’s getting more minutes. We see his value on defense. We’re playing a lot of zone, and John is our best 5-man.”
The Bucs also got 22 points from Jarvis Jones, while Rashawn Rembert matched his career high with 18.
It was another quiet night for Lester Wilson. The redshirt freshman has seen his scoring average slip, along with his minutes, over the last four games.
His nine points against the Owls marked the third straight game in single digits. Wilson, the team’s leading scorer for most of the season, had only seven points total during the Florida swing last week.
“Right now I’m just not hitting shots,” he said. “Most of them haven’t even been contested shots; they’re shots I was making earlier. I’ve got to find a way to get over it.
“Rashawn is playing well, and we need to put whoever is playing well out there. I understand that.”
Wilson began the season acknowledging he can be a “defensive liability,” and that continues to be a factor in how much he’s on the floor.
“His defense is better today than it was at the start of the season, or even two weeks ago,” said Bartow. “But he’s still got a lot of work to do there.
“Lester is still going to get his 25 to 30 minutes a game. He can go for 20 a night, and we don’t have many guys like that. We need him if we’re going to get where we want to go.”
The Bucs may need more scorers on the floor today. Mercer leads the league in scoring defense, by almost four points a game, at 57.5. Opponents are shooting just 39 percent from the field.
The Bears have stuck with a starting five of Travis Smith, Langston Hall, Jakob Gallon, Bud Thomas and Daniel Coursey almost the whole way. They also have five guys averaging double-figure minutes off the bench.
Smith, a senior guard, is the team’s leading scorer at 13.2 ppg. Hall averages 10.7.
It all adds up to pretty formidable A-Sun team.
“They have the two veteran guards, Hall and Smith, and both are really good players,” said Bartow. “They have size inside with Coursey and (Monty) Brown, and they rotate seven or eight players in and out. I think Thomas is as underrated as anybody in our league. He really knows how to play.”