Mercer didn’t quite fit the bill of “mid-major.”
Bears head coach Bob Hoffman always schedules tough, and the personnel he has amassed in his six seasons more than often allows the Bears to remain competitive. In 2013-14, they tripped to Oklahoma and Ohio. Though they lost both games, Hoffman wasn’t deterred. “We might not have been as athletic as them, but we had all the other pieces that give us a chance to be successful,” Hoffman said last March.
March. That quote came from a press conference the day before Mercer’s NCAA tournament Round of 64 game against Duke. They were playing in Raleigh, the Blue Devils’ backyard, as a 14-seed. They’d face forwards Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood, both bandied about as NBA draft picks.
But why worry?
The Bears started five seniors, who’d come through the ringer together. Forward Jakob Gollon, after fighting injuries, was in his sixth year. He’d come in with Hoffman, and watched this thing bloom.
We all know how the script ended. Perhaps the most thrilling game of the 2014 Tournament, ending in a 78-71 Bears win. The team’s poise was impeccable. So were seriously sensational post-game dance moves from Kevin Canevari.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski told reporters, “I want to wish Mercer the very best. I love the game, when the game’s played really well. I hope it’s us that’s playing it. But when it’s the other team, you applaud it. I applaud Mercer. They were absolutely terrific today.”
Coach K had also stopped by the Bears locker room to personally express his congratulations. Canevari recognized it as a “class act.” Teammate Daniel Coursey reiterated the sentiment.
Krzyzewski has won National Championships, and twice taken the podium to receive Olympic Gold. That he recognized something special in Mercer said something quite forceful. There was a way this team had been constructed, and a classy comportment that exuded.
One of the best coaches in history wanted to show his appreciation for the fact that, last season, Mercer represented the very best in college basketball.
The most thrilling run in program history. So, what’s percolating in terms of an encore?
Though eight Mercer players graduated last spring—Hoffman said watching those seniors walk across the stage was his proudest moment—the expectations haven’t dimmed in Macon, GA.
Rather, they’ve been enhanced.
So, after the Round of 32 to Tennessee that ended the NCAA run, the Bears took two weeks off. Then, they got back in the gym.
“We want to transcend what we did,” says Ike Nwamu, a 6-5 senior. “Our goal isn’t to get back to the third round; it’s to win the National Championship. We’ve worked extremely hard to allow ourselves the opportunity to continue to grow.”
Says Hoffman, “Guys are buying in to what they specifically need to do for us to be successful. They’ve all been intricate parts of what transpired in the past several years. They understand what they’re inheriting.”
A trip that took Nwamu thousands of miles away from Georgia gave him a much clearer view. Hoffman had seen former players Langston Hall and Daniel Coursey—both integral members of last season’s team—participate in Athletes in Action.
Nwamu decided to attend. After training camp in Colorado, the team went on a seven-day tour of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia in early August. They played against local professional teams, as well as the Qatar national team.
The typical day began with readings from scripture, which Nwamu says pertained particularly to the games they’d play that day. Afterward, they’d eat, then go sightseeing. The Hill of Crosses, a Lithuanian landmark that, as of 2006, was filled with over 400,000 of them, resonated deeply.
“Ike was already grounded, but he got completely focused on what he wanted to be, and how he needed to go about getting it done,” says Hoffman. “There was a different sense of purpose about him when he came back. It’s been refreshing to watch.'”
Nwamu worked with his fellow veterans to instruct a very talented incoming class. “We knew what we had to put in, the all-out work, and the younger guys began to get on the same page,” he says. “It started in the summer, with having to teach so much about how we run certain things, how we carry ourselves on and off the court. I found myself echoing the coaches, letting the newcomers know that you have to build good habits—not just sometimes—in order to be consistent.
“And that’s where I’ve grown up,” Nwamu continued. “I remember Langston [Hall] doing the same thing for me. Now, guys like Darious [Moten] and Jibri [Bryan] are taking leadership roles. We have the blueprint. Now, it’s about expressing it.”
In the first two games of this season, we saw the high-flying dunks Nwamu is known for—along with a bevy of threes, many of which came from the corner, his favorite shooting spot. After averaging 8.3 points in 18.8 minutes per game last season, Nwamu has nearly doubled his scoring average through the first four games.
“Last season, my game was predicated upon attacking—getting to the rim and getting to the line,” says Nwamu, who hit 83-111 free throws (75 percent) in 2013-14. “This year, I’ve tried to work on mid- and long-range shooting. I knew that could really help us out. I wasn’t thinking of it as shouldering the scoring load; I just want to do whatever we need to win.”
Hoffman raves the way Nwamu is seizing upon his considerable potential, and helping the new pieces find their fit in this puzzle. Nwamu’s two fellow seniors are also enjoying increased roles. Moten, a first-year starter, is a great athlete who excels at making plays on both ends. Hoffman calls TJ Hallice the best post defender he’s coached.
During last season’s tournament run, it was revealed that Hoffman has cultivated some 150 different offensive plays. When his teams become comfortable with the magnitude, you begin to see it hum. Hoffman encourages freedom within the framework. An ability to improvise.
“Historically, the best teams I’ve been able to coach, by the time we get to the end of the year in conference play, they figured out a lot of things you’d never have guessed at the beginning,” says Hoffman.
The coach readily admits the current edition has a long ways to go. They’ve split the first four games this season—winning two at home, dropping two on the road. Understandable for a team with so many new pieces, still finding its feet. But there’s a sense that Mercer might surprise some people as the campaign wears on. For Nwamu, it all boils down to the culture.
“Mercer’s a tight-knit community,” says the senior. “Once you’ve been here awhile, it feels like home. “The cohesiveness between coaches and players makes it feel like one big family. You can see that everyone genuinely cares about each other.
“And that carries over to the court.”