2011-12 Blue Ribbon Preview - Mercer
Team preview: Mercer
Blue Ribbon Yearbook
COACH AND PROGRAM
Last Season 15-18 (.455)
Conference Record 11-9 (5th)
Starters Lost/Returning 3/2
Coach Bob Hoffman (Oklahoma Baptist '79)
Record At School 48-50 (3 years)
Career Record 360-204 (17 years)
RPI Last 5 years 275-315-181-219-221
Bob Hoffman can see it in individual workouts. He can see it in his players' conditioning. In the way they carry themselves.
It's confidence, and despite finishing the 2010-11 season with a losing record, the Bears were able to build a better attitude thanks to their ability to weather the losses of two top scorers late in the year. Even without Jeff Smith and Brandon Moore, Mercer still won 11 of its last 16 and gave Belmont a scare in the Atlantic Sun Tournament. Now, despite having only one senior on the club, the Bears are ready for a big year.
"What ended up transpiring was that the young guys continued their development, and the assistant coaches did a good job with individual workouts," Hoffman said of last year. "We lost a lot of close games to good teams early in the season, and we saw how close we were to being a good team.
"When the two seniors got hurt, it galvanized the team, and it started believing at a higher level. Their mindset changed, because our margin for error got smaller, so we played better."
As a result, the Bears returned to campus in the fall with a renewed belief in themselves and the expectation that nothing can keep them down. They may not be ready to supplant Belmont at the top of the league, but they certainly can be a dangerous foe for anybody in the A-Sun. "Last season gave them a taste of what they could do," Hoffman said.
One person who had plenty of experience last year is 6-4, 180-pound sophomore Langston Hall (8.2 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 3.5 apg, .397 3PT), who grabbed the point guard spot immediately and earned a slot on the A-Sun All-Freshman team. Hall showed he could handle the team, play good defense (1.3 spg) and make some big shots. He needs to get more accurate overall when he pulls the trigger, but he has the makings of a four-year standout. Hall spent part of the summer playing two-guard on an Athletes in Action tour and could be an even more productive offensive player this season.
"We were hoping he would be able to do what he did," Hoffman said. "We didn't know he'd become that kind of three-point shooter. He was an amazing leader. He's a tremendous kid who understands how to get others involved. He puts others first."
Although the rest of the Mercer backcourt doesn't have a lot of proven performers, there is some talent and reason for optimism, beginning with 6-3, 185-pound junior college transfer Travis Smith (Gulf Coast CC/Presbyterian University/Porter-Gaud School/Johns Island, S.C.), who averaged 14.5 points last year and hit 41 percent of his three-pointers. He will get time next to Hall and could play some point, but he'll definitely help the Bears defensively. "I'm fired up about having him and Langston playing defense together," Hoffman said.
Another backcourt JUCO transfer is 6-2, 190-pound Shaquille Harris (Enterprise State CC/Americus-Sumter HS/Americus, Ga.), who has a 40-inch vertical leap and who made 45.7 percent of his three-pointers last year. You can imagine that Hoffman is excited about him.
"He can score the ball like crazy," Hoffman said. "He's a streaky shooter, but if he gets it going, he can shoot it from anywhere."
Expect 6-4, 190-pound freshman Kymon Woods (East Hall HS/Gainesville, Ga.) to redshirt, but 6-3, 180-pound redshirt freshman Jibri Bryan (Benedictine Military School/Savannah, Ga.) is a "wild card," Hoffman said, in part because of a knee that isn't completely healthy. "But he is long and athletic," Hoffman said. "He can pass, and he can guard."
Hoffman and his staff decided to award a former walk-on, 6-1, 170-pound junior guard Chris Smith (2.2 ppg, 1.4 rpg), a scholarship after his solid play in 2010-11. "He can guard anybody," Hoffman said. "A lot of guards around the conference don't want to see him, because they know he'll be on them like a tick."
Sophomore Kevin Canevari (0.5 ppg, 0.4 rpg) is a 5-11, 165-pound point man who will see some time.
The sole returning frontcourt starter is 6-6, 200-pound sophomore Bud Thomas (4.2 ppg, 2.6 rpg), who became a first-teamer in the middle of last year and has continued his growth heading into the fall. Hoffman expects him to be a factor inside and out.
"He does all the intangible things you want somebody to do," Hoffman said. "That makes a difference."
Even though 6-8, 225-pound Justin Cecil (5.4 ppg, 2.5 rpg) missed a couple key shots last year, he did make some big ones, and Hoffman thinks his time on an AIA tour of China this summer will only help his confidence and development. Expect him to improve as a three-point shooter (.283) and be a little more aggressive inside, too.
Hoffman jokes that 6-6, 200-pound sophomore Jake Gollon (4.2 ppg, 3.0 rpg) will be "the first player in NCAA history to earn his doctorate before he's done playing," because Gollon has already had two redshirt seasons. Gollon is a solid interior player who can score in the lane.
If Mercer wants to go big, it can do what hardly any conference rivals can: put 6-11 and 6-10 players on the court at the same time. Last year, 6-11, 250-pound sophomore Monty Brown (1.5 ppg, 1.0 rpg) started the final 10 games, earning valuable experience. "He didn't make an impact stat-wise, but there were moments when he helped," Hoffman said.
Daniel Coursey (0.2 ppg, 0.3 rpg), a 6-10, 220-pound sophomore, has gained weight and strength to go with his athleticism inside.
Hoffman is interested to see how 6-9, 205-pound freshman T.J. Hallice (Fishburne Military School/Metrolina Christian Academy/Tabernacle Christian Academy/Savannah, Ga.) will handle the transition. The year at military school helped his maturity, and Hoffman thinks he'll be a perimeter weapon.
"He can really, really shoot the ball," Hoffman said. "He has what everybody wants -- he can make shots."
Hoffman is hoping 6-7, 240-pound sophomore Paul Larsen (1.9 ppg, 1.8 rpg) is ready to make a larger impact this year, thanks to increased strength and conditioning. "Nobody can stop him one-on-one," Hoffman said. "He's a post-up guy who looks like a massive linebacker. You can't get around him, and he's quick and athletic."
BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS
On paper, the Bears look like they have some holes, and though there is no proven scoring on the roster, Mercer has the potential to be dangerous, if Hoffman can put all the pieces together.
It starts with Hall, and that's a good thing. Even if he doesn't score that much more, he'll probably provide opportunities for everybody else. Travis Smith and Harris should make immediate contributions, while Chris Smith will add value with his nasty defense.
The frontcourt has a lot of people who should average between five and 10 points a game. If everybody can produce each night, that should be fine. The luxury Mercer has is that if it wants to go big, it can go really big, with Coursey and Brown inside, Hallice on the perimeter and then a couple of big guards. That should make trouble for just about anybody. If Larsen can score inside, it will open things up for the shooters.
Mercer learned a lot about what it takes to win last season, and though the Bears are probably a year away from real contention in the Atlantic Sun, this should be a team that succeeds some nights just because it believes in itself.