Coach Bob Hoffman, a second-year man with ample experience in the world of small-college basketball (in the NAIA and the Division I-A realm of the NCAA), returns four starters this season but lacks the deep bench needed to carry his team through a full season. What helps Mercer heading into this Monday matchup is the fact that the Bears have been off since an 87-62 win over Piedmont on Dec. 10. The Bears will have a tough time on Wednesday, when they take on Alabama roughly 48 hours after dealing with the Dores, but on this night in Nashville, Mercer will be fresh. A bunch of starters (plus sixth man Brandon Moore) will be able to play extended minutes; moreover, the likely presence of early-game rust – the product of a 10-day layoff – will demand that the Bears stay on the floor for a considerable amount of time. Say this much about the Atlantic Sun Conference title contender: If Mercer falls into foul trouble, it doesn't have a credible plan B.
NOTE: Hoffman does not have a true center in his starting five.
Forward – Daniel Emerson – Senior, 6'8", 235; 2009-10: 12 ppg, 11.6 rpg
Double, double, toil and trouble. Emerson will be a load for Vandy's big men, as the stats plainly indicate. Anyone who averages a points-and-boards double-double knows how to live near the rim and establish office space next to the backboard. Emerson isn't long, but he is wide, solid, and very hard to uproot. A.J. Ogilvy and Festus Ezeli will need to use their length, but even more importantly, VU's prime post players will have to display their very best footwork and positional instincts in order to seal out Emerson with angled block-outs and good reads of where missed shots are going to carom once they hit the rim. Any part of good instinctual rebounding includes the ability to accurately gauge the ball's direction in the event of a miss. Ogilvy and Ezeli are on notice against an Emersonian opponent who expects to snatch a dozen rebounds per game.
Forward – Brian Mills – Junior, 6'7", 201; 2009-10: 8 ppg, 6 rpg
One thing to watch for in this matchup is the fact that Mills is coming on strong. In his last three games, the native of Douglasville, Ga., has averaged 11.7 points and 2.7 assists per contest. Mills isn't an overwhelming force in the same way that Emerson is, but the seasoned performer – who is averaging 23.3 minutes a night – knows how to play second fiddle and lend support to his teammates at all spaces on the floor. Vandy will want to make sure that Mills' alert passing doesn't set up easy baskets for the Bears.
Guard – Jeff Smith – Junior, 6'2", 170; 2009-10: 9.2 ppg, 2.6 assists per game, 3.4 rpg
In his last five games, Smith has hit just 9-of-42 field goal attempts, which means that Vandy's primary concern in this matchup will not relate to perimeter defense. The threat Smith brings to the table is a willingness to crash the glass. The Huntsville, Ala., product snared five rebounds against Georgia Tech and then grabbed nine boards against Atlantic Sun rival Lipscomb on Dec. 3. Smith is an erratic player – his assist-to-turnover ratio is 7-to-10 in his past three outings – but if the Dores don't block him out, Mercer can get to the boards and earn the extra possessions that could make this game a lot closer than some experts think.
Guard – E.J. Kusnyer – Senior, 6'5", 222; 2009-10: 13.4 ppg, 3.6 rpg
If Jeff Smith doesn't represent a huge perimeter shooting threat, Kysnyer most certainly does. Stallings and his assistants should be able to communicate the fact that this is a classic sniper, a long-range gunner who lives behind the 3-point arc. An eye-popping fact proves the point.
When Kusnyer scored 26 points on Dec. 10 in Mercer's most recent game against Piedmont, he did so without attempting a single two-point field goal. Kusnyer made eight 3-pointers in just 10 attempts, and added two free throws to complete his prolific night of point production. The notable achievement tied Kusnyer with New Mexico's Ramon Martinez, who also scored 26 points this season without need of a two-point shot attempt. Mercer's sports information staff noted – just in case you were wondering – that Arkansas sharpshooter Rotnei Clarke threw down 32 points earlier this season… but attempted one 2-point shot in the process.
Guard – James Florence – Senior, 6'1", 186; 2009-10: 23.1 ppg, 5.1 apg, 3.1 rpg
We've saved the best for last. Florence is one of the very best players who will step on the Memorial Gym hardwood this season, joining a select list that will include names such as John Wall and Tyler Smith. Florence's accomplishments are numerous, prodigious, and worthy of the greatest respect. He tossed in 40 points in an 85-74 loss at nationally-ranked Georgia Tech on Nov. 27, and he did so by shooting 70 percent from the field (14-of-20). Many scorers shoot poorly from the field but rack up numbers at the foul line; Florence, though, plays under control and makes every field goal attempt count. The man from Marietta, Ga., is hitting 46 percent of his shots while using a diversified game that can threaten defenses from any spot on the floor.
To put his prowess in perspective, consider the following fast facts about Florence: His points-per-game average is seventh in the country; he's scored in double figures in 30 straight games, second only to Lipscomb forward (and former Vanderbilt opponent this season) Adnan Hodzic, who's working on a 36-game streak; he's registered 87 double-figure scoring games in his storied Mercer career; and, last but not least, he's just 42 points away from passing former Toronto Raptors coach Sam Mitchell as the all-time leading scorer in Mercer basketball history.
Yeah, the Dores might want to guard this guy. (More on James Florence in the keys to the game.)
Mercer isn't a terribly deep team. The Bears have only two reserves who average double-digit minutes. Brandon Moore, a 6-foot-5 forward, plays roughly 18 minutes a game and gives Hoffman 6.7 points and 3.9 rebounds a game. Moore's blue-collar game and pell-mell intensity need to be matched (if not exceeded) when Mercer turns to its sixth man on the court. The seventh man in Hoffman's rather thin rotation is 5-11 point guard Mark Hall, who plays just over 11 minutes per contest. While this team has big guards such as 6-6 junior Ridas Pulkauninkas, it's the small-ball style with Hall or 5-11 teammate Tevin Swann (6.3 minutes per game) that Mercer more regularly employs.
Keys to the Game
- Don't let Florence flourish. Vandy doesn't necessarily have to smother Mercer's meal-ticket scorer, but VU can't allow James Florence to get cheap points at the foul line or in transition. As long as MU's senior guard has to work hard for his points, and isn't able to involve his teammates in the offense, the Dores will force the Bears to play 1-on-5 basketball, which is always a winning proposition. If, however, Florence's excellence causes the Commodores to leave other Bears open, the shape of VU's defense could get distorted, and Mercer might be able to string together multiple made baskets as a result. Superstars will get their fair share of points; the key for Vandy is to ensure that the other Bears don't get involved, and that one player's individual dynamism coexists with offensive stagnation for his four on-court teammates.
- Place an emphasis on Emerson. It's not often that A.J. Ogilvy or Festus Ezeli will go up against a counterpart who averages a double-double. When you watch Daniel Emerson on Monday, pay attention to the offensive glass. If Emerson can accumulate second-chance points and beat his man to the backboard, a player who currently averages "12 and 12" could turn into a "30 and 15" man for one night, and that's the very kind of scenario that could put Vandy in trouble. Florence is the only player who can be allowed to score big for Mercer. If Emerson is cramming the stat sheet, that will be an alarming indicator for Stallings and the rest of the VU coaching staff.