Good luck to anyone in the Atlantic Sun Conference looking for a statistical chink in the Mercer armor. There isn’t one.
The front-running Bears bring a seven-game win streak to the Dome tonight to face East Tennessee State in a matchup delayed a day by weather troubles in Georgia. And they bring a lot more than that — experience combined with superior offense, defense and rebounding are all part of the winning mix.
What it adds up to in late January is a 17-5 overall record, 8-1 in conference. Just putting the brakes on the Bears, much less beating them, will be a major challenge for the Bucs (11-10, 4-4).
“They’ve been building this team for four years,” said ETSU coach Murry Bartow. “Of their top seven players, six are seniors. It seems like they’ve been around forever.
“Offensively they’re really solid, defensively they’re really solid … they’re just on a good roll right now.”
Coach Bob Hoffman’s team was 1-1 in the league the first time it faced the Bucs this season, coming off a loss to North Florida and a two-point win at home over USC Upstate. The Bucs promptly raced out to a 15-1 lead in Macon, Ga., but ended up losing 73-63.
It’s been lights out ever since.
The Bears’ closest call in the last three weeks was 13 points, and that was against defending champion Florida Gulf Coast. They just crushed Stetson 87-49 last Saturday, boosting their average margin of victory this season to over 15 points a game.
Bartow hopes the Bucs can replicate tonight some of the good things they did early in the first matchup on Jan. 6.
“We got off to a really good start,” he said, “but they played well the last 12 minutes of the first half and got the lead. It was nip and tuck in the second half, and they just played a little better than we did.
“You’re going to have to play a complete game to beat them.”
Statistically, the Bears are a bad matchup for anyone in the A-Sun. They lead the league in scoring (81.4), scoring defense (66.2), rebound margin (+7.1), field-goal percentage (.488) and free-throw percentage (.730).
Opponents are shooting just 39 percent against them.
“They’re just a textbook team,” said Hunter Harris, the Bucs’ senior forward. “They do everything by the book, and when things break down, they just stay with their game. The biggest difference is they’ve been together so long and have a great chemistry.”
The man who makes it all work is point guard Langston Hall. The 6-4 senior averages a team-high 14.3 points per game, tops the conference in assists (6.0) and is an 86 percent foul shooter.
Inside, Daniel Coursey averages 10.9 points and 7.1 rebounds a game and is shooting 60 percent from the field.
The Bears are in the process of building a healthy lead as the second half of the A-Sun schedule begins.
Florida Gulf Coast is 7-2 and has already lost to them. Everyone else in the conference has at least four losses, including ETSU.
The Bucs have won the first two games of a five-game homestand. They pulled out a 76-75 victory over Jacksonville last Saturday when Kinard Gadsden-Gilliard banked in the winning basket on a drive with eight seconds left.
The 6-6, 250-pound senior, named the A-Sun player of the week on Monday, is becoming a go-to guy. He has scored in double figures in four of the last five games to boost his season average to 11.7 points. He’s also getting 4.8 rebounds and almost three assists a game.
“His focus is really good right now. His mindset is good,” said Bartow. “It’s pretty obvious Kinard is an important guy for us because of his versatility. He can play a number of positions, inside or out, and has a high basketball I.Q.
“He doesn’t mind having the ball in his hands in key situations.”
A.J. Merriweather led the Bucs in Macon with 20 points and nine rebounds. The freshman has lost some of the steam in his game lately, scoring in double figures only once in the last six contests.
He’s still averaging 10.7 points and 6.2 rebounds.
ETSU leads Mercer 12-6 in the all-time series but has lost four in a row.