Because we're desperate, we're going to treat this one like it's not a cupcake.
Mercer, which is in Macon, Georgia, is 6-4 on the season so far, with wins over Alabama and Auburn, while also taking Georgia Tech into overtime before losing. They did get blown out by Oklahoma State in their last game, 104-74.
If you remember, Mercer also knocked off USC early last season.
Mercer's recent coaching history is an interesting one. It fired its coach from a season ago, Mark Sionaker, and hired Bob Hoffman, who has coached the Rio Grande Valley Vipers of the NBA Developmental League and the Arkansas Aeros of the ABA.
Hoffman is an advocate of a fast-paced, high-scoring style. When he coached the Aeros, Hoffman's team led the league in scoring, averaging 133 points per game.
So, while his running offensive style produces a lot of points, it also allows a lot of points. Mercer's opponents are averaging 75 points per game so far this season, which gets it tied for last among Atlantic Sun Conference teams. The Bears have given up an astounding 650 shot attempts in just 10 games.
The style can also skew statistics a bit. Players score a bit more than normal, get more rebounds and assists – and far more turnovers. Teams who play this style generally shoot a lower percentage and get more rebounds because the ball is put up so much.
Hoffman took over the program with three returning starters, and one veteran transfer who sat out last season. Those players include three of the top five returning scorers, including the team's top rebounder and shot-blocker. So, Hoffman wasn't left with a completely bare cupboard.
Mercer is led by junior guard James Florence (6-1, 180), who some have projected an Atlantic Sun All-Conference pick. He's the team's leading returning scorer, a shoot-first kind of point guard who can fill it up quickly. He also can shoot you out of a game pretty quickly, too. He's averaging about 17 points per game while shooting just 38% from the field. He's attempted a whopping 156 shots, which is about twice the amount of shots Darren Collison has attempted. He's shooting just 28% from three, and he's attempting 7 three-point attempts per game. Pushing the ball constantly, Florence is a turnover machine, averaging 4.4 per game, against just 4 assists.
As we said, statistics in this style of play can be deceiving, but you have to still appreciate that Emerson, the transfer from Western Kentucky, is averaging a double-double so far on the season, averaging 15 points and 10.2 rebounds per game. He is the workhorse of the team, playing 34.5 minutes per game, which is something when you consider he's doing it on the interior defensively, too. Emerson is very good around the glass, being able to seal well and finish, while also getting points on putbacks, and is an excellent passer. If left open, he'll take an outside jumper, too.
Henry has heretofore been mostly appreciated as a very good defensive player and rebounder, but has put up some scoring numbers in his senior year in Hoffman's offense, averaging 10.7 points per game, while still hitting the boards, getting 7.8 rebounds a contest. He's athletic and fairly long, which makes him an excellent shot blocker, which enables him to make up for being pretty thin. Henry doesn't take many three-pointers, but if you sag off him he'll hit them at a high percentage.
The two other starters would probably be considered forwards also.
The closest to a guard would be junior E.J. Kusnyer (6-5, 222), but he looks far more like a small forward. Kusnyer's is mostly a spot-up guy and a fairly good outside shooter. Junior BeJay Corley (6-6, 216) is a glue-type player who Mercer doesn't expect to score but does all of the little things.
When Hoffman needs to match up with a smaller opposing backcourt he goes to sophomore point guard Mark Hall (5-11, 162), who will play alongside Florence at times. Hall isn't much of a scoring threat, and allows Florence to play off the ball where he can jack it up even more. Hall, when playing fast and loose in this system, has been turning the ball over constantly, with more than twice the amount of turnovers (35) as assists (16).
Junior guard Michael Ellis (6-4, 216) gets more time off the bench than starter Corley, but isn't much more of a scoring threat, and isn't a three-point shooter at all.
The true sixth man is sophomore forward Brian Mills (6-7, 201), who is a solid scorer around the basket and can hit a mid-ranger.
The stat that particularly jumps out at you when looking at Mercer is the turnovers. They are upside down in their assist-to-turnover ratio. In fact, every player on the team besides Ellis has more turnovers than assists. The team is averaging a whopping 18.2 per game. It's hard to outscore opposing teams when you're handing them so many more possessions. They almost certainly would have beaten Georgia Tech if they didn't turn the ball over 28 times in that game.
How they have been replacing those possessions is by rebounding, averaging a huge 42 rebounds per game. It's probably the one aspect of this game where Mercer is better than UCLA, which is just an average rebounding team. Mercer out-rebounded Alabama 56-38. Watch the rebounding numbers in this one; if UCLA is out-rebounding Mercer there is no way the Bears have a chance.
Mercer will push the ball at every opportunity, even when they seemingly don't have an opportunity. They are good at forcing fouls and very good at converting at the free-throw line, shooting 73% as a team. Florence, while out of control, is a crunch-time player who has a knack for making the big play when it's needed.
Mercer is a good match-up for UCLA, the Bears being a team that will allow UCLA to get out on a break. The Bruins are good in transition and are tough to beat when they're getting a considerable amount of transition points. The key here might be the battle on the Mercer offensive boards; if UCLA can get those defensive boards and start its break, Mercer will probably be in for a long night.
Mercer is far better than Loyola Marymount, DePaul or Cal State Northridge, so it will be interesting to see if the Bruins haven't been lulled by their string of cupcakes into a somnambulist state.