RALEIGH — In one of those college basketball coincidences, Mercer was the team that ended Tennessee’s season a year ago, knocking off the Volunteers 75-67 in the first round of the NIT at Knoxville, Tenn.
On Sunday, 14th-seeded Mercer can advance to the Midwest Region semifinals if it can duplicate the result in a third-round set for 6:10 p.m. in PNC Arena.
The 11th-seeded Volunteers insist they didn’t take the Bears of the Atlantic Sun Conference lightly or overlook them. A bigger factor might have been the letdown of missing out on the NCAA tournament and having to settle for the NIT.
“What I remember from that game, we didn’t really have the energy for that game,” senior guard Jordan McRae said Saturday.
Added junior forward Jarnell Stokes, “I feel like from playing them last year we understand they’re a very good team. They’re playing with a chip on their shoulder, but we’re also playing with a chip on our shoulder. It’s the NCAA tournament, and you can see anything can happen.”
Junior guard Josh Richardson agreed. “Honestly I think it’s a difference in the tournament,” he said. “Last year we were hoping to get in the NCAA tournament. This year we’re playing for higher stakes. I think everybody will give everything they have (Sunday).”
A man short: Mercer will probably be without its biggest body against a Tennessee team that prides itself on physical play in the paint.
Monty Brown, a 6-foot-11, 250-pound senior from Liberty Mounds, Okla., suffered a possible concussion in Friday’s 78-71 upset of third-seeded Duke.
“He wasn’t at practice today,” Mercer coach Bob Hoffman said Saturday. “It doesn’t look good. We’re hopeful he’ll be back. He hasn’t been completely ruled out, but it doesn’t look good.”
Hoffman said Brown couldn’t remember anything from Friday’s game. “He remembered fixing breakfast,” he said.
A reserve center, Brown averages 4.5 points and 2.4 rebounds but more importantly gives Hoffman depth in the post to combat Tennessee’s 6-8, 260-pound bookends, Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon.
“Which is important with the big bodies we’re facing,” Hoffman said. “We could use some girth.”
Brown scored two points in four minutes against Duke, making two free throws, before he was injured late in the first half when his head collided with a Duke player’s leg. Adding insult to injury, Brown was called for a foul on the play.
Super sub: Michael Dixon Jr., the hero of eighth-seeded Memphis’ second-round victory over ninth-seeded George Washington, has made a career of coming off the bench. He was named the Sixth Man of the Year by the Big 12 coaches in 2011-12 as a junior, when he helped Missouri win the conference tournament championship.
After sitting out a year and transferring to Memphis, he was voted Sixth Man of the Year by the American Athletic Conference coaches as well.
“I’ve been blessed to be on teams with a lot of good players,” said Dixon, a 6-1 senior guard from Kansas City who is second among the Tigers in scoring at 12.0. “I just came off the bench all 35 games we played. That’s my role; I’ve gotten used to it. All my teammates have confidence in me. Starting a game is not important to me.”
Memphis coach Josh Pastner also has confidence in him. With the Tigers clinging to a two-point lead with just over two minutes to play against GW, Pastner called a timeout and drew up a play for Dixon, a 38 percent 3-point shooter. Dixon drilled the 3-pointer to halt GW’s run, and he added four free throws down the stretch to ice the 71-66 victory.
It’s probably likely that at some point in Sunday night’s third-round game, Dixon will go up against Virginia wing Justin Anderson, who was Sixth Man of the Year in the ACC.
Homecoming: Mercer guard John Mosser, a 6-4 freshman from Green Hope High in Cary, has been looking forward to this weekend ever since Mercer’s name was matched with Duke in last Sunday’s NCAA selection show.
“I had had a lot of people texting me saying, ‘Oh, God, I can’t believe you’re playing Duke.’ It’s been great to be back and see all my friends and family. It has been a lot of fun.”
Mosser didn’t see any court time against Duke but still enjoyed the experience.
“It was a great experience yesterday playing Duke after growing up and watching them play,” he said. “It definitely took a second (to sink in) when I saw them taking their warmups on the other side. I had seen them on TV so much, and now we were here actually playing them. But Coach (Bob Hoffman) always has us ready for anything and anybody we go against.”
Locker room visit: After Mercer unceremoniously ended Duke’s season Friday, the Bears had a surprise locker room visitor – Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski.
Kevin Canevari, a senior guard from Charlotte, wasn’t in the locker room at the time but he heard about it from his teammates.
“They said he had a lot of great things to say,” Canevari said. “It was a real class act by him.”
“It was pretty crazy to see him walk in after they lost a game like that,” senior center Daniel Coursey said. “It was really classy of him.”