Southern Conference play ready to open Wednesday night in Birmingham

The Game: Mercer (7-6, 0-0 SoCon) at Samford (6-7, 0-0 SoCon)

The Date and Venue: Dec. 29, 2022/Pete Hanna Center (5,000)

Coaches: Mercer-Greg Gary (58-49/4th yr at Mercer)/Samford-Bucky McMillan (33-31/3rd yr)

Series: Mercer leads 17-3

TV: ESPNU/7 p.m. EST

Last Season’s Meetings: Split 1-1

Samford 75, Mercer 61 Jan. 26, 2022 (Pete Hanna Center)

–Samford ended up with a 75-61 win over Mercer at the Pete Hanna Center in what would be the spark for a strong finish to the final month of the season for the Bulldogs. It would mark the Bulldogs’ first win over the Bears on the college basketball hardwood since 2002 when the two teams were both members of the Atlantic Sun Conference. The win by the Bulldogs snapped what had been a 17game winning streak in the series for the Bears. The win improved Samford to 12-8 overall and 2-6 in conference play, while the loss dropped Mercer to 12-9 overall and 5-3 in league play. The Bulldogs were led in the win by Ques Glover, who posted 20 points, five assists, and had four steals. Talented freshman Wesley Cardet added 16 points and ended up dishing out four assists and added four steals, while Jaden Campbell added 14 and Logan Dye finished with 11 to round out the double-figure scorers for Samford. Mercer was paced in the contest by Jalen Johnson added 13 points to lead the Bears, while Kamar Robertson finished with 11 points, while Felipe Haase added a double-double with 10 points and 12 rebounds. Mercer actually jumped out to the early 11-2 lead before Samford was able to respond, and after Mercer led 16-8, the Bulldogs would launch an 8-2 run to cut the Mercer lead to 18-16 with 8:06 remaining in the opening half of play on a three-pointer by Jaron Rillie. Mercer then increased its lead back to five, at 21-16, the Bulldogs mounted a 12-0 run to take a 28-21 lead with exactly 3:00 remaining on a layup by Glover. Mercer would again cut the Samford lead to two, at 31-29 early in the second half, the Bulldogs responded with a 7-0 run to push its lead to nine, at 38-29 with 18:02 remaining in the contest, capping the run with an emphatic dunk by Dye. After Mercer cut it back to five (40-35), the Bulldogs responded with a 6-0 run to take their first double-digit lead of the contest when Campbell connected on a triple to make it a 46-35 game with 14:32 left. Mercer was able to cut the Samford lead inside 10 twice more before the Bulldogs eventually pushed their lead to as much as 17 points inside the final stretch before holding on for the 14-point win.

Mercer 83, Samford 80/Jan. 5, 2022 (Hawkins Arena)

—Mercer was able to open up Southern Conference play in a strong fashion and hand Samford its second loss in Southern Conference play, as the Bears were able to hang on for an 83-80 win at Hawkins Arena. The Bulldogs opened league play without leading scorer Ques Glover at Furman, and paid for it in an 81-49 setback in Greenville. With Glover back in the fold for the Bulldogs, they would play much better on the road in their second game of the New Year, however, the Bulldogs still couldn’t recapture the success of a 10-win non-conference slate, which included wins over Oregon State and Ole Miss, as the Bears posted an 83-80 win at Hawkins Arena on Faith and Family night. The win saw the Bears improve to 8-6 overall and 1-0 in league action, while Samford fell to 10-4 overall and 0-2 in league play. Between the Bulldogs and Bears, a total of five players scored 20 or more points in the game, with three accomplishing the feat for the visitor’s, while two did so for Mercer. Jermaine Marshall (24 pts, 13 rebs), Ques Glover (23 pts), and Jaden Campbell were the lone three Samford Bulldogs in double figures in the game, while Mercer’s two with 20 or more points–Felipe Haase (24 pts) and Shannon Grant (23 pts)–were among four players in double digits. The Bears and Bulldogs last faced each other last March in the second game of the opening day of the tournament in Asheville, and in that game, it was all Bears, as Mercer was able to take an 87-59 win in that particular contest. However, the two regular-season contests last season–both won by Mercer–both went to overtime. When Mercer took a double-digit lead in the second half, it appeared Wednesday night’s mid-week clash might be going to follow the path of that opening round SoCon Tournament game last season, however, to its credit, Samford battled back. The Bulldogs trailed 67-55 in the second half following a layup by Kamar Robertson with 6:37 remaining. However, over the next six minutes, Samford would continue to chip away at the Bears lead, using a 23-12 run to get within a point on a Glover foul shot, at 79-78, with just five seconds remaining. After missing the second foul shot, the Bulldogs were forced to foul immediately, sending Haase to the line for a pair of foul shots. He knocked them both down to give Mercer the 81-78 lead. Robertson then fouled Glover to prevent Samford from shooting a three, and Glover knocked down both free throws to get the Bears back to within a point, at 81-80, with two seconds remaining. Haase was with two seconds left, and he went to the line and knocked down both offerings to give Mercer a three-point edge once again. The Bulldogs would get one final look at a three, but Cooper Kaifes’ effort was no good, and Mercer held on for SoCon victory No. 1 and victory No. 1 of 2022.

Previewing Wednesday’s Matchup:

Mercer and Samford are set to open Southern Conference Wednesday night, as the Southern Conference basketball season tips off in Homewood. The Bulldogs, who were picked to finish second in the SoCon at the league’s annual media day back in October, will be looking to snap what was a horrendous end to non-conference play, as the Bulldogs will be looking to put an end to what has become a seven-game losing streak following a 79-56 setback at Belmont to close out non-conference play.

Mercer comes in having played some decent basketball towards the end of non-conference play, getting wins over both Morehead State (W, 79-52) and got maybe their best win of the non-conference slate against Troy (W, 82-79) in the Bears’ final game prior to Christmas.

Both the Bears and Bulldogs have been snake bitten by injuries during non-conference play, with Samford suffering much more without the likes of do-everything point guard Ques Glover (13.8 PPG), who is expected back sometime in early January, as well as Cooper Kaifes (), as he has also missed time with injury.

For much of non-conference play, the Bears have been without two of their leaders, with both guard Jalen Cobb and forward and preseason All-SoCon selection James Glisson III (11.5 PPG, 4.0 RPG). He recently returned near the end of non-conference play, and with Glisson III in the lineup, the Bears are 2-0.

The Bears have a unique dynamic to their roster this season, which gives them the ability to go both with big and small lineups. The addition of 7-2 Australian David Craig (8.8 PPG, 5.6 RPG) has allowed head coach Greg Gary have his own version of the SoCon’s Zach Edey. If you know anything about Gary, then you know what a major influence Purdue’s Matt Painter has been on him as a head coach. Craig, who is the tallest player in the Southern Conference, gives the Bears the kind of size in the paint that no one else in the Southern Conference has at the moment.

It hasn’t necessarily translated necessarily in the way of rebounding thus far for the Bears, who currently rank seventh in the league in rebounding margin (+3.3) through the first 13 games this season.

Gary went out and beefed up the depth in the frontcourt as well, bringing in both current leading scorer Jalyn McCreary (15.2 PPG, 5.2 RPG), as well as Luis Hurtado Jr. (10.2 PPG, 5.4 RPG). Hurtado has started all 13 games for the Bears, while McCreary has logged 12 starts thus far with Mercer. Hurtado transferred into Mercer from Bryant, while McCreary came from South Florida. Both have been two of Mercer’s most four productive performers this season.

McCreary currently ranks ninth in the SoCon in scoring so far in the 2022-23 season, and his 60.0% field goal percentage has him ranked fifth overall in the SoCon in field goal percentage.

Hurtado gives the Bears solid skill in the paint with his ability to distribute the basketball, as he currently leads the SoCon in assists-per-game, dishing out 5.5 helpers-per-game, which is a full assist ahead of Furman’s Mike Bothwell, who is averaging 4.5 assists-per-game.

With that said, the Bears also can go big at guard, with Glisson possessing the ability to play wing, as can Shawn Walker (10.0 PPG, 2.4 RPG), who is one of the holdovers from last season. Walker has seen his scoring production increase by nearly five points-per-game, as he averaged just 5.9 PPG last season.

However, as good as the additions of the players have been from the transfer portal for the Bears, namely Hurtado and McCreary, the catalyst for this basketball team continues to be lightning-quick point guard Kamar Robertson (13.6 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 16 steals). The diminutive point guard is also the team’s top perimeter shooter, shooting a blistering 50% from long range this season, and has hit a team leading 26 three-point field goals this season. His 50% shooting clip from long-range this season currently leads the SoCon.

A player to keep an eye on off the bench for the Bears is Michael Zanoni (8.3 PPG, 2.8 RPG), who is a player that can score points in a hurry with his ability to shoot the three off the bench. He’s second on the team in three-pointers made for the Bears this season, with 22 made triples, and is shooting a blistering 42.3% (22-of-52) from long range through the first 13 games of the season.

As a team, the Bears enter Wednesday night’s Southern Conference opener ranking fifth overall in the SoCon in scoring offense (77.2 PPG), while ranking fourth in the league in scoring defense (69.8 PPG).

In terms of shooting the basketball, the Bears enter their Southern Conference opener tied for the league lead in field goal percentage, connecting on 50.0% from the field, as the Bears are tied atop the conference with Furman in team field goal percentage. From the perimeter, the Bears rank third overall in three-point field goal percentage (93-of-239) but rank ninth in three-pointers made per game (7.2).

Defensively, the Bears come into their SoCon opener ranking fourth in the SoCon in three-point field goal percentage defense (42.2%) and third in three-point field goal percentage defense (31.7%).

Samford comes in searching for an identity, which seemed to be clearly apparent when the Bulldogs won their first six games of the season, which of course, was before the injury to Ques Glover. Glover’s foot injury will keep him out until sometime in early January. That means the Bulldogs will be without him once again Wednesday night, and the way things have been trending since Glover’s injury, that’s not a good thing at all if you’re a Samford basketball fan.

Talent-wise, the Bulldogs have one of the most gifted rosters of any team in the Southern Conference. However, sometimes getting that talent on the same page and more importantly right now for Bulldogs head coach Bucky McMillan, getting them healthy at the same time is something that will be vital to the team’s success heading into Southern Conference play.

The player called upon to help fill in for Holmes while he gets back to full health for conference play has been Georgia Tech transfer and former VMI star Bubba Parham (9.6 PPG, 4.2 RPG). Parham himself has struggled to return to his former scoring ability due to battling injuries over the past few years. He’s been asked to play more of the role of playmaker and leader than pure scorer now in his last season of college basketball. Parham has been solid, averaging just over nine points-per-game and just over four boards per contest.

Some might even argue that the absence of Cooper Kaifes (5.3 PPG, 3.3 RPG) has been even more detrimental to the cause of the Bulldogs this season. Kaifes is a tremendous shooter and hasn’t returned to the lineup since the game against Tennessee Southern.

Jaron Rillie (5.8 PPG, 2.7 RPG) and Jaden Campbell (10.2 PPG, 1.6 RPG) join Bubba Parham as the starting trio in the backcourt for the Bulldogs entering Wednesday’s matchup. A.J. Staton-McCray (5.5 PPG, 3.0 RPG) has also managed to provide some depth off the bench, but has yet to find his way back to the production level he had two years ago at Samford.

One of the players really having an outstanding season for the Bulldogs this season has been forward Logan Dye (10.8 PPG, 5.4 RPG), and he’s teamed with Jermaine Marshall (10.1 PPG, 5.9 RPG) in the paint for Samford, giving them a solid one-two punch underneath the basket. Both offer versatility as well, as each of them possess the ability to step out and shoot the three.

In fact, over the past seven games and during the current losing streak, the Samford front court has been one of the few bright spots. One key addition to the frontcourt has been 6-9 Achor Achor (8.8. PPG, 4.8 RPG), who has helped add depth to what was a thin frontcourt in terms of depth was concerned last season.

The Bulldogs still rank fourth overall in the Southern Conference in scoring offense (79.1 PPG), however, rank seventh in the league in scoring defense (70.9 PPG). The Bulldogs rank seventh in the league in team field goal percentage (43.8%), while ranking fifth in field goal percentage defense (42.5%).

Samford hasn’t shot the three well, nor have they defended it well through non-conference play to this point. The Bulldogs currently rank eighth in the SoCon in three-point field goal percentage (31.9%), while ranking dead last in the SoCon in three-point field goal percentage defense, as teams are shooting 38.5% from long range against the Bulldogs this season. That ranks 339th nationally in three-point field goal percentage defense.

Prediction:–This game is paramount for both teams, but it could even be a little more important for Samford when considering the state of team confidence and having lost seven-straight. Given how things have trended recently, however, I give the slight edge to Mercer in this one.

Mercer 77, Samford 74

Published by soconjohn

I am a lover of all things SoCon, and I have had a passion to write about, follow and tell the world about this great conference for pretty much my entire life. While I do love the SoCon, and live in the SoCon city, which is home to the Furman Paladins, have a passion for sports in general, with college football and college hoops topping the list.

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