The Jackrabbits are perfect through two games in the CBE Classic. Later today they'll attempt to leave Georgia unscathed when they take on Mercer. To learn all about Mercer, I corresponded with David Hess, the book's resident Atlantic Sun conference expert. In addition to contributing to the book, Hess does all sorts of neat things for TeamRankings.com. He also recently collaborated with Sports Illustrated's Luke Winn for an incredibly comprehensive study of defensive analytics in college basketball. We appreciate him taking some time to help us preview the Bears.
Q: All four teams in the tournament have at least one win over a mid-major foe (well, sans Sam Houston State) and one unforgiving loss to a high-major squad. What went well in the win for Niagara? And what went wrong in the loss?
A: Let's start with what went right. As I wrote in CBP 2011-12, Mercer's success last year was predicated on getting to the line (40th nationally in free throw rate), forcing turnovers (50th in turnover percentage), and defending the three point line (64th in opponent three point FG%), and this year it seemed likely they'd continue those defensive trends, but wouldn't make it to the free throw stripe as often. Well, in their win over Furman things went exactly as planned -- the Bears forced the Paladins to turn it over on 32 percent of their possessions and allowed them to shoot only 3 of 20 from beyond the arc (15 percent), but managed to shoot only 15 free throws themselves. The perimeter pressure helped hold Furman to a remarkably low 0.73 points per possession. Missouri, on the other hand, has been known for its own pressure defense the past few years, and getting to face that day in and day out in practice probably prepared the Tigers well for Mercer. Missouri shot 11-of-22 from three-point range and turned it over on only 19% of possessions, while forcing the Bears into a 29 percent turnover rate. Missouri outplayed Mercer by a bit in all Four Factors, but that turnover rate was probably the most impactful discrepancy.
Which player is the most likely to have a) a big scoring outburst, b) a double-double, c) a highly efficient game in a low usage role?
This a boring answer, but I'll go with the team leader in points per game, Bud Thomas, as the most likely to have a big scoring outburst. In somewhat of a surprise development to me, Thomas has already had games of 18 and 16 points this year after topping 10 only twice last year. It doesn't hurt that he has averaged over a steal per game, leading to a few easy points. Jakob Gollon is the most likely to snag a double double; he averaged 4.2 points and 3 rebounds in 16 minutes per game last season, and has at least doubled all those numbers so far this year, averaging 9.3 points and 6.7 rebounds in 33 minutes per game. Finally, by my definition of usage rate, I don't think we can expect high efficiency from any Mercer player with a low usage role. But if you want to go by minutes, Paul Larsen may be your guy. He's averaged 2.7 points in only 5 minutes per game this year, on 4-of-7 shooting, plus he's shown himself to be a very good rebounder over the past year-plus.
Based on last year's results and the few games played this season, what can we expect of the team during this tournament?
As mentioned in question one, only two of Mercer's three main strengths from last season seemed likely to carry over. I'd expect them to continue to force turnovers at a relatively high rate, and to limit opponents' success from deep. Their defense should lead to some transition opportunities, which will be key for the Bears, as their offense has struggled otherwise, failing to crack 1 point per possession in two of three games, including against Division III Emory. Improved play from point guard Langston Hall would go a long way toward curing their offensive troubles, as both his turnover rate (30 percent) and eFG% (35 percent) have been much worse than last season. Even if his play gets better, the Bears could can be beaten on boards; both this year and last year their offensive rebound rates have been a couple percent lower than their opponents. South Dakota State has good enough guard play to handle Mercer's defensive pressure, which could make the difference in the game.
Thanks again to David. You can find him on Twitter @AudacityOfHoops.