Playing in a state starved for college basketball excellence, Mercer University did more than just drop the Macon Whoopee down a notch in Macon’s modest sports history Friday. It emerged as the unlikely program to set the standard for other college programs in Georgia.
The 14th seeded Bears, playing in their first NCAA tournament game since 1985, shot nearly 56 percent from the field against Duke’s crumbling defense, went on a late 11-0 run and stunned the No. 3 seeded Blue Devils 78-71 in a first-round game of the Midwest Regional in Raleigh, N.C.
Yes. That just happened.
It was the first NCAA tournament win in school history. In Durham, they will be more focused on the fact that this was the second time in three years Duke is one-and-done, having lost to Lehigh in 2011.
Amusingly, the Twitter site for Lehigh athletics sent a Tweet out following the game that read: "Welcome to the club @MercerBears #BeatDuke."
Mercer reached the tournament by winning the Atlantic Sun tournament championship over Florida Gulf Coast College, which was last year’s NCAA Cinderella. The Bears had never won an NCAA tournament game, losing to Arkansas in 1981 and Georgia Tech in 1985.
The Bears were the only Georgia school to make it into the field. So Georgia, Tech, Georgia State, Kennesaw State, Savannah State and Georgia Southern are all now officially looking up to them.
“With these guys? I don’t know who’s beating us,” coach Bob Hoffman said immediately following the game.
Actually, that’s not such a crazy statement. Mercer will play the winner of the Massachusetts-Tennessee game on Sunday. That winner advances to the Sweet 16 against the winner of Michigan-Texas.
I had a chance to watch Mercer a little bit last season when it appeared the school would make the tournament (only to get upset by FGCC in the conference tournament). Hoffman has done an amazing job. He has been at Mercer for six seasons and is 77-31 (41-13 in the Atlantic Sun) over the last three.
Hoffman's a pretty interesting story. He was a head coach at two small programs, Oklahoma Baptist and Texas Pan-American, then an assistant at Oklahoma under Kelvin Sampson for three years (2004-06). When the Sooners got hit by NCAA probation, Hoffman was out of work for a while, coached a now-defunct ABA team in Arkansas and an NBA D-League team in Hidalgo, Texas, then was hired by Mercer in 2008.
After what he’s accomplished in Macon, it’s safe to say he won’t be out of work for a while.