#109 Mercer Men's Basketball 2017-2018 Preview

Mercer Bears


2017-2018 Overall Rank: #109

Conference Rank: #2 SoCon

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The Mercer Bears finished in the middle of the Southern Conference last season and earned a 15-17 record overall. The Bears did not play in a postseason tournament for the first time since the 2010-2011 season, snapping a streak of five consecutive years. During those five years, Mercer has won the CIT, played in the NIT and CBI, and, most notably, stunned Duke in the first round of the 2014 NCAA Tournament. The Bears transitioned from the Atlantic Sun conference to the SoCon after their signature victory and they have not enjoyed the same level of success in a tougher conference. Led by veteran head coach Bob Hoffman, Mercer should compete for the top of the SoCon as this is their best team since the previously mentioned 2014 team. Mercer is a senior laden squad that returns almost all their key players from last season, including their top seven scorers. Their experience and familiarity with each other makes them an extremely formidable team that will put high major teams on upset alert.
2016-17 Record: 15-17, 9-9
2016-17 Postseason: None
Coach: Bob Hoffman
Coach Record: 179-130 at Mercer, 489-286 overall
Who’s Out:
Mercer will only lose three reserves from last year’s team: JJ N’Ganga, Andrew Fishler, and Darius Roy. N’Ganga and Fishler were the only seniors on Mercer’s roster and shared the backup center position. N’Ganga previously played at New Mexico and averaged 1.4 points and 1.7 rebounds in his one season at Mercer. Fishler averaged 2.9 points, 1.9 rebounds, and 0.8 blocks per game as a senior. N’Ganga and Fishler, listed at 6-10 and 7-1, respectively, each averaged around 8 minutes per game and brought different skills to the backup center position. Fishler provided rim protection, while N’Ganga added bulk to the frontcourt. Darius Roy was a seldom used guard who only appeared in 18 games as a freshman and will transfer to Connors State College. These losses should have a minimal impact.
Who’s In:
The Bears add two guards and two centers to the program. Mitch Prendergast is a point guard with a high basketball IQ and a good shooting stroke. He will be joined in the future backcourt with Marcus Cohen. Cohen is a crafty 6-4 guard who loves to attack the basket and score at the rim. Mason Green and Mac Brydon will hope to replace the frontcourt depth that was lost when N’Ganga and Fishler graduated. Green is an athletic 6-10 center, but could struggle with the physicality of college basketball as a freshman due to his thin frame. Brydon is a walk-on who redshirted last season and will provide some size and strength to the frontcourt. Listed at 6-10 and 280 pounds, Brydon’s size could get him some early playing time. These incoming players will play a minor role this season, but are important pieces for the future.
Who to Watch:
Mercer’s greatest strength is their starting backcourt which is composed of seniors Ri’an Holland and Jordan Strawberry. Holland is a 6-foot scoring guard who began his career at Wichita State. Even though Holland played sparingly at Wichita State, he has emerged as one of the best returning players in the SoCon and has emerged as a go to scorer for Mercer. Holland led Mercer in scoring with 17.2 points per game and also led the team in three pointers with 77 makes. He is a high-volume shooter, but still managed to shoot a very good percentage (37.7%) from three. Holland shares the backcourt with Jordan Strawberry, who is Mercer’s point guard and primary facilitator. Jordan Strawberry is the son of former MLB star Darryl Strawberry, but Jordan should be recognized for his own abilities on the basketball court. Strawberry led Mercer with 4.3 assists per game and was second on the team in scoring with 12.2 points per game. He also shot 43.6% from long range, which led the team. Strawberry has steadily increased his production in each of his first three seasons at Mercer and should be poised for a successful senior season. This great backcourt will keep Mercer in contention for the SoCon crown.
The Bears have three other seniors in their starting lineup: Demetre Rivers, Stephon Jelks, Desmond Ringer. Rivers is a 6-8 wing and Mercer’s third leading scorer at 11.2 points per game. He is a good three-point shooter who can put the ball on the floor and score over smaller defenders. What Rivers lacks in explosiveness he makes up for with elite positional size for the mid major level. Stephon Jelks is a perfect complement to Rivers in the frontcourt due to his physical play. Listed at 6-6 and 225 pounds, Jelks adds bulk and toughness inside which contrasts Rivers’ more perimeter oriented skill set. Jelks led Mercer in rebounding at 6.7 per game despite being an undersized forward. He has also shown an ability to hit long range shots since he made 22 three pointers last season. Jelks only shot 28.6% from three, but his 80.2% from the free throw line suggests that his jump shot should improve. He shot 35.6% from three as a sophomore which could also indicate a bounce back shooting season. Rounding out the starting five is 6-9 center Desmond Ringer. Ringer played his freshman season at South Carolina before transferring into the Mercer program. He brings interior scoring and a physical presence with his 255-pound frame and averaged 7.6 points and 5.8 rebounds per game. While Ringer is not a shot blocker, his size is a major asset around the basket both offensively and defensively. These three seniors are essential to Mercer’s success and fit nicely with the Bears’ talented backcourt.
Mercer returns most of their bench from last season and it will be interesting to see which reserves take a step forward. Sophomore Ethan Stair should be the sixth man if he is fully healthy. Stair broke into the starting lineup towards the end of his freshman season, but unfortunately had to redshirt in 2016-17. The 6-5 wing will provide a major boost and essentially give the Bears six starters. Stair averaged 6.6 points and 4.2 rebounds in just over 24 minutes per game as a freshman. Junior wing Ryan Johnson and senior point guard Rashad Lewis played in every game last season and should have consistent roles off the bench. At 6-5, Johnson has good size for the wing position and averaged 3.8 points in 10.5 minutes per game. Lewis is a diminutive guard who is listed at 5-8 and 156 pounds and is an extremely valuable backup. He was second on the team in assists with 2.2 per game, but his best attribute is his ability to take care of the ball since he only averaged 0.7 turnovers a game. This gives Lewis a 3.14:1 assist to turnover ratio, which many coaches would kill for. Junior Corey Kilby also earned a reserve role last season. The 6-7 forward averaged 3.4 points and 2.5 rebounds in 12.9 minutes per game. Kilby will get most of his minutes backing up Jelks, but do not be surprised if he logs some minutes at center in smaller lineups. Junior Jaylen Stowe and sophomore Ross Cummings will also compete for minutes on the wing. Stowe appeared in 26 games last season, while Cummings only appeared in 14 games. Both players are in danger of losing their limited roles to the incoming freshman guards.
Final Projection:
Mercer’s roster is very talented, but their experience and lack of player turnover is what makes them such a promising team. All five starters are seniors who were on the team last year, which should lead to better chemistry. In fact, 10 of the top 11 scorers from last season have returned and that gives the Bears the necessary depth to compete at the top of the SoCon. Mercer played at one of the slowest paces in the entire country last season according to KenPom. This makes team chemistry even more vital for a team like Mercer that plays in the half-court so frequently. Improved team chemistry should lead to major improvements on both ends of the court. The X-factor for Mercer is Ethan Stair. If he can regain his level of play from 2015-16 then Mercer will have six legitimate starting caliber players. Having a reliable contributor coming off the bench is invaluable and at 6-5, Stair gives Coach Hoffman additional lineup flexibility. There is no reason why Mercer cannot finish in the top three of the SoCon, which would give the Bears a good chance to win their conference tournament and return to the Big Dance.
Projected Postseason Tournament: CBI / CIT / V16
Projected Starting Five:
Jordan Strawberry, Senior, Guard, 12.2 points per game
Ri’an Holland, Senior, Guard, 17.2 points per game
Demetre Rivers, Senior, Guard, 11.2 points per game
Stephon Jelks, Senior, Forward, 7.3 points per game
Desmond Ringer, Senior, Center, 7.6 points per game
By the Numbers:
Scoring Offense: 70.9 (234th in nation, 8th in conference)
Scoring Defense: 68.2 (74, 2)
Field-Goal Percentage: 44.4 (172, 7)
Field-Goal Defense: 41.5 (55, 1)
Three-Point Field Goals Per Game: 7.6 (150, 7)
Three-Point Field-Goal Percentage: 35.0 (171, 6)
Free-Throw Percentage: 78.2 (5, 1)
Rebound Margin: 5.5 (32, 1)
Assists Per Game: 13.5 (173, 7)
Turnovers Per Game: 11.5 (44, 1)