For even the most casual of sports fans, March is a special month. College baseball is starting to heat up, professional baseball spring training is underway, and professional basketball is zeroing in on the playoffs. But above all else, March is known for one thing: college basketball’s March Madness. Mercer’s men’s and women’s teams will get to play their part in “The Big Dance” starting with the Southern Conference tournament from March 7-11 at the U.S. Cellular Center in Asheville, North Carolina. Here’s a quick look at what to expect from the Bears this weekend.
Women’s Team: It’s Mercer’s to Lose
March 5, 2017. That’s the last time Mercer women’s basketball lost a game to a conference opponent, losing to Chattanooga by two in the conference tournament championship. In the more than 700 days since, the Bears have gone 31-0 in regular and postseason conference play. This year, led by seniors KeKe Calloway, Amanda Thompson, Rachel Selph, and Linnea Rosendal, the team claimed its second straight regular season SoCon championship. They enter this year’s tournament on a 14-game winning streak and look set to defend their title.
The top-seeded Bears will kick off the tournament against eighth-seeded Western Carolina at 11 a.m. on March 7. It would be easy to overlook this game, since the Catamounts did not win a conference game all year and Mercer won both regular season matchups. However, just two points separated the teams in their first meeting this season, with the Bears squeezing out a 69-67 victory. They would go on to win the next matchup by 16.
Anything can happen in March, especially when higher seeds underestimate their opponents, but this should be a stress-free victory for the Bears. With a win, their semifinal opponent will be either ETSU or Wofford on March 8 at 11 a.m., and a victory in that game would place them in the championship game at noon on March 10. All games will be broadcast on ESPN+.
Men’s Team: Bears Face an Uphill Battle
Men’s basketball in the SoCon has been especially strong this year, and having 10 new players hasn’t exactly made things easier for the Bears. Mercer finished the regular season 6-12 in conference play, and will enter the tournament coming off a pair of double-digit losses to VMI and UNCG. If there’s one thing they do well, though, it’s that they fight to the finish. Over half of their conference losses have been by 10 points or less, and the same can be said for non-conference losses against powerhouses like Florida, NC State, and Georgia State. Junior Ross Cummings has clearly been the star of the show, scoring in double digits in all but three games this season. Seniors Jaylen Stowe and Cory Kilby, along with Junior Ethan Stair and Sophomore Marcus Cohen, have also been key contributors and will need to step up for the Bears to have success.
The sixth-seeded Bears will have no easy task in the first round, as they will face third-seeded Furman at 8:30 p.m. on March 9. The Paladins won both regular season matchups by double digits, and finished the regular season with a 13-5 conference record. Mercer will need all of their key players to perform if they are to avenge those losses.
If a few more things had gone their way this season, the Bears might be looking at a completely different tournament picture. As I said before, anything can happen in March, so don’t count Mercer out just yet- they are certainly capable of pulling off an upset or two. If they beat Furman, they will play UNCG, Samford, or The Citadel in the semifinals on March 10 at 6:30 p.m. With another win, they will find themselves in the championship game at 7 p.m. on March 11. All games will be broadcast on ESPN+ and the championship will be featured on ESPN.