This is the part of March Madness the the casual fan just doesn’t get.
Most folks are going to look and see some school called the Mercer Bears beat the Tennessee Volunteers from the mighty SEC and not think twice about it. Those that will comment on it in the media will spin it that Tennessee’s heart just wasn’t in it and they lost the game. They will go on and on about how the team with more notoriety gets credit for giving the game away.
But hear this sports writer loud and clear when he says the Bears win tonight in Knoxville was just that; a win. In fact it was an historic win for Mercer in their first outing in its first appearance in the NIT. And it wasn’t just a win. It was a dominate victory in a tournament setting in a hostile environment.
And when you are trying to build a program that has seen more heartbreak than joy over the past half century, this win means something more.
When it comes to this guy’s love of college basketball there has always been two extremes. On side of the heart rests the North Carolina Tar Heels, a school that accepted this aspiring writer and sports nut fulfilling a dream from the time I was about six. On the other half it beats for the Bears, the school that swept this guy off of his feet back in 1991. When it comes to hoops, one has never been like the other.
But you cheer and you hope and you pray that this is the year Mercer can take that next step.
The last time the Bears made the Big Dance was in 1984, behind the strength of Sam Mitchell only to get knocked out in the opening round by the No. 2 Seeded Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. And in the years since, Mercer has had its fair share of chances to get back to the craziness that is March Madness only to find a way to lose in the conference championship.
Trust this guy when he says the 1990s were the best of times and the worst of times for Mercer basketball. There were some great teams, but more students showed up for the Kappa Sigma versus Sigma Nu intramural hoop battles than they actually did for the Bears.
But all that changed as 2000 rolled around. New commitments, new leadership and the hiring of head coach Bob Hoffman in 2008, signaled something big was about to happen. Mercer President William Underwood and Athletic Director Jim Cole quickly signaled to Hoffman that the Bears were going to do whatever they needed to in order to build a basketball power. Their commitment even took them around the country to view first hand what programs like the Gonzaga Bulldogs did to get to where they are today.
So if you are one of the folks out there looking at this with a yawn as just another game in the crappy NIT, you are sorely mistaken. And there are about 50,000 Mercer Alumni who are ready to have a few words with you on why you are dead wrong.
This was an historic day for sure in annuals Mercer basketball. Another hurdle crossed. The Bears were champions of the College Insiders Tournament in 2012, and despite falling short of the NCAA, Mercer claimed a huge win for its future and all of its raving fans tonight.
M Shannon Smallwood is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and the US Basketball Writers Association.
Follow him @woodysmalls.