Each matchup — the lopsided losses, the confidence-building wins, even the final minutes of a close game — taught the 14th-seeded Bears a lesson. And that has helped them mature into the team that stands here now, fresh off the tournament’s biggest upset over Duke and playing Tennessee to reach the round of 16 today in the Midwest Regional.
“Every time there’s an upset in March, people tend to call it a Cinderella story,” said Gollon, a sixth-year senior. “But we know how good we are and in the past couple of years, we’ve beaten a lot of high major teams. So we expect to win a lot of these games.”
Mercer (27-8) shook up the tournament and ruined plenty of brackets by knocking off Mike Krzyzewski’s Blue Devils on Friday, controlling the final minutes of a tight game to pull away from a younger team filled with big-name talent.
It marked the 17th time in the past four seasons that the Bears have played a team from a major conference, according to STATS LLC. They have beaten Florida State and Georgia Tech from the Atlantic Coast Conference; Seton Hall from the Big East; and Southeastern Conference teams Alabama, Mississippi and even these same Volunteers (23-12) in last year’s NIT.
Beating Duke marked the seventh win in those games for the four-year seniors, who opened this year with a three-point loss at Texas, an eventual NCAA team.
Coach Bob Hoffman said that big-game experience was a major factor in beating the Blue Devils, saying it lets the players “know that you’re as good as those folks, even though maybe they didn’t recruit you.”
No one has to convince the 11th-seeded Vols of that. After beating Iowa in the First Four then following with their own upset of No. 6 seed Massachusetts in Friday’s second round, they have heard plenty of questions about both Mercer’s win over them last season as well as the Duke upset.
“We didn’t overlook them. We didn’t take them for granted, either,” Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said. “Our guys watch a lot of basketball. They know good basketball when they see it.”
Here are five things to watch in today’s Mercer-Tennessee game:
TENNESSEE’S BEEF: Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon had double-doubles in the UMass rout, with Stokes scoring a career-high 26 points to go with 14 rebounds.
Keeping the two 260-pound big men off the boards is going to be a difficult challenge for the Bears, particularly considering their biggest player — 6-foot-11, 250-pound senior Monty Brown — is likely out with a possible concussion suffered against Duke.
“We need some girth to bang around a little bit and he would definitely have helped us there,” Hoffman said.
MERCER’S BALANCE: The Bears certainly have plenty of scoring options, with Langston Hall (14.6 points) and Daniel Coursey (10.1) averaging in double figures and four other players averaging at least 8.2 points per game.
Mercer displayed that balance against Duke, with five players scoring in double figures.
VOLS’ DEFENSE: The Volunteers held Iowa to 16 points below its season average in an overtime win in the First Four, then held UMass below its season scoring and shooting averages in the second round.
Mercer’s offense is on par with those previous opponents, averaging 79 points and 48 percent shooting.
“I think we’re playing our best defense of the year right now,” graduate Antonio Barton said. “We’re just relying on each other and trusting each other.”
MOMENTUM: Both teams have played well coming down the stretch.
Tennessee has won seven of eight games, with the only loss coming to No. 1 overall tournament seed Florida in the SEC tournament. Mercer has won five straight, including a three-game run through the Atlantic Sun tournament.
That leaves both teams playing with plenty of confidence, especially after their Raleigh openers.
THE NIT FACTOR: Mercer shot 50 percent to win 75-67 on the road in the first round of last season’s NIT. That gives the Bears confidence they can beat the Volunteers again, while the Vols aren’t going to overlook a team that ended their season a year earlier.
“We understand they’re a very good team and that they’re playing with a chip on their shoulder,” Stokes said. “And we’re also playing with a chip on our shoulder.”