Not that they need any more at the moment, but the Mercer Bears have some fans in the Georgia Bulldogs. In fact, one Bulldog in particular predicted Mercer’s upset over Duke in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday.
“That’s one of the upsets I called right,” said Georgia point guard Charles Mann, shortly before the Bulldogs’ practice Friday and soon after the Bears’ 79-71 victory. “Me and J.J. (Frazier) were arguing in the locker room about it (Thursday). He said Duke was going to win and I said, ‘no, I think Mercer is going to pull an upset.’ And they did it!”
Mann and the Bulldogs were going on more than regional pride and optimism. They actually played the Bears in one of the NCAA’s annual preseason private scrimmages this past Novemeber. And it was a barn-burner, by all accounts. They actually played three 15-minute periods, rather than two halves. UGA officials who were there said Mercer won the first period, Georgia won the other and the backups battled to a virtual draw in the third.
The Bulldogs also played Mercer at home early last season and had to fight like mad to pull out a 58-49 victory. So there’s some local knowledge.
“Mercer’s a real good team,” Mann said. “They’ve got a lot of seniors, terrific bigs and they had a great point guard. I knew any team with a good big would give Duke problems. I called it right.”
Said Georgia coach Mark Fox: “I thought they’d be terrific (this season). We’ve played them the previous three years, too, so I’m really happy that they won today. (Coach) Bob (Hoffman) and I have a great friendship and we talk quite a bit, so I’m very happy for their team.”
Georgia, meanwhile, is still competing as well, albeit on a considerably smaller stage. The Bulldogs (20-13) will play host to Louisiana Tech (28-7) in an NIT second-round game Saturday at UGA’s Stegeman Coliseum. An 11 a.m. tipoff time was arranged by the tournament so as not to bump too much against the higher-profile event the Bears are playing in.
But Georgia claims to be no less motivated for their contest. And it can’t afford to be.
In the Bulldogs from Rushton, La., Georgia is hosting a team that very much believes it belongs in the other tournament. LaTech finished in a four-way tie for first in the Conference USA regular season, but Tulsa got the league’s only bid via the automatic qualifier by winning the conference tournament.
The visiting Bulldogs were awarded the No. 3 seed in the NIT and narrowly defeated Iona 89-88 on Wednesday. Georgia, a 2 seed, had to rally to beat Vermont 63-56 the same night. The winner will play the victor of Monday’s game between FSU and Georgetown sometime next week.
So Saturday’s game will feature two teams with contrasting styles. LaTech is a high-tempo team that averages 81.3 points a game. Georgia is a team steeled on defense and rebounding.
“Everyone that’s playing now is good, and they’re very good,” Fox said. “They have a lot of interchangeable parts, shoot the 3 all over the place, a lot of guys who can score, force turnovers. They’re an excellent team. It probably came down to the bitter end whether they got in or not.”
Georgia feels like it belongs as well, a fact underscored by Mercer’s stunning victory on Friday. It was about this time last year that the Bears ousted Tennessee from the NIT.
“Of course, watching some of these games, I get kind of frustrated and angry,” said Mann, who scored a career-best 29 points in the Bulldogs’ first-round win. “But we put ourselves in this position. So we’ve just got to learn from this and go get it next year. But I’m proud of those guys.”