Sickness and the winter break got the best of me, but The Ruling is back in session as Mercer basketball ramps up Southern Conference play -- the most vital portion of the season.
It hasn’t exactly gone as planned so far. After a 7-6 non-conference season, Mercer lost its first three conference games to East Tennessee State, Furman and Western Carolina.
The ETSU loss was unlike the others: the Bears fell 74-55 to the SoCon-leading Bucs. A pair of close losses -- 74-71 to Furman and 58-56 to Western Carolina -- rounded out the stretch.
Since, the Bears won both games of a home stretch against Samford and Chattanooga. Mercer played by far its best conference game of the season thus far in an 81-50 dismantling of Samford; the Bulldogs were 3-1 in conference before the loss.
Mercer then survived its next game in overtime, 75-71, against an undermanned Chattanooga team who has not yet won a conference game. The Bears were impressive against Samford; head coach Bob Hoffman seemed more relieved than he has been all year to earn that first conference victory in such a fashion.
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Mercer did not come out with the same energy in the first half against Chattanooga, but a win is a win, and that makes the Bears 9-9 on the season and 2-3 in conference play.
So, what do you need to know about SoCon play so far?
(1) Ria’n Holland has been cold from the floor
Through his first 10 games of the season, Ria’n Holland shot 59 percent from the 3-point line. The NCAA Division-I leader for 3-point percentage currently is Wichita State’s Landry Shamet at 52 percent.
And then conference season hit. Over the three-game losing streak, Holland shot 1-of-16 from the 3-point line and now ranks 20th in the country at 46 percent from the arc. He had made at least one 3-pointer in the first 11 games. Since, he has gone without a 3-pointer in three of the last four games.
“He’s a really talented shooter, and he wants us to win,” Hoffman said. . “Everybody tries to do their part, and sometimes you do more than you need to -- and not just him, our whole team including me… Sometimes you just have to relax.”
Averaging 21.9 points per game through those first 10 outings, Holland was the de facto go-to guy for the offense. With his shot rolling, so too was the offense. But when your leading scorer goes cold from the arc, it makes scoring tough.
That’s, in part, why the Bears scored 55 points against ETSU and 56 against Western Carolina. It seemed he had gotten his shot back after his performance against Samford -- 23 points on 5-of-9 shooting from 3.
He even said so himself: “I got my groove back kind of thanks to Coach [Dale] Layer. Me and him had a tough shooting competition the other day.”
But then he struggled once again in the Chattanooga victory -- 13 points on 6-of-18 shooting and 0-of-5 from 3. Mercer was able to survive in that contest, but in order to challenge for a SoCon title and win games the rest of the season, it will need Holland to be his usual self from downtown.
I expect him to return to form soon; it’s just a slump.
“When [Holland] hits 3s then we’re even a more deadly team,” said forward Stephon Jelks. “I like how [Holland] keeps his composure and finds other ways to score and get other people involved. He’s not just in his own little world when it comes to shooting 3s. That’s what we need him on the team for -- scoring -- but even when he’s not scoring, he’s still a factor for us on the floor.”
(2) Stephon Jelks is the hype man of the team
Picture this: a 6-foot-6, 225-pound man scoring an and-one down low, then turning around and stomping his way all the way to halfcourt with a mean smirk on his face. Intimidating, eh?
That’s Stephon Jelks for ya. Mercer charged out to a 12-0 lead over Samford and eventual 44-16 lead at halftime; I’m not sure I’ve seen that kind of energy from a Mercer team the last three years.
And who was leading the hype train? Jelks.
“He’s always the energy guy,” said fellow forward Desmond Ringer. “He has a high motor. You can’t box him out. He’s going to the glass every time.”
Jelks knows he’s the energy guy. He has been for a couple years now, but it was never more evident than in the Samford victory. His energy is paying off on the stat sheet, too.
He has recorded back-to-back double-doubles against Samford and Chattanooga: 13 points and 11 rebounds, and 10 points and 12 rebounds. He had seven rebounds in the first nine minutes of the Chattanooga game.
Jelks himself said bringing energy to the team is what he does best.
“I’m just doing what I have to do to help the team win, whether that’s scoring zero points and grabbing 10 or 15 rebounds or vice versa,” Jelks said. “I’m just out there doing what I have to do to get the team win.”
(3) FEED Desmond Ringer
Let the big man eat! And he’s been eating really well lately -- like, filet mignon with a side of lobster well.
In five SoCon games, the senior is averaging 12.2 points and 10.2 rebounds. Jelks said Ringer is a pivotal part of the team.
“He’s the core man on our team,” Jelks said. “He’s like a big brother to everybody on the team. He looks like he’s 50 years old.”
He’s not completely wrong. I mean, look at this beard… Ferocious.
The duo of Jelks and Ringer has been fantastic as of late. In the Chattanooga game alone, the Bears outscored the Mocs 46-14 in the paint. I don’t expect that kind of advantage to continue, but it’s positive nonetheless.
Ringer said Hoffman has been trying to find different ways for him to score.
“Not necessarily on the block or post ups, but he just tries to use the defense that we’re playing against to our advantage,” Ringer said.
Shoutout to fellow Cluster writer Christian Hartley: He asked me mid-game against Chattanooga, “Why don’t they give the ball more to Desmond Ringer?”
Seconds later, Ringer scored in the post. Maybe we’ll see more of that.
I noted earlier in the year that Ringer and Jelks would be keys to this team because of the lack of depth in the frontcourt. They have been able to stay out of foul trouble recently and are producing at high levels.
“We’re always looking for each other,” Ringer said. “[Jelks] is like my brother. He’s also picking me up and vice versa. We hold each other accountable to hold it down on the glass together and rebound at a high level.”
(5) ETSU is good. Real good.
The Bucs sit atop the conference at 14-4 overall and 5-0 in SoCon play. More importantly, the Bears tend to struggle against ETSU -- a lot.
Since joining the SoCon, Mercer is 1-7 against the Bucs. The Bears lost six straight outings to ETSU, with their lone win a 69-64 victory on February 28, 2015.
Hoffman said Mercer has struggled with ETSU forever.
“Before I got here we had never beaten them. We went on a run and won some, and now they’re on a little run. We just need to start our own run. They’re a good team. They’re really, really talented. They’re well coached … You just keep battling. It’s a long season.”
If Mercer wants a taste of March Madness, the Bears will need to find an answer against ETSU. Or just hope someone else beats them in the conference tournament.