Preview & Prediction: By Evan Dorey
-- Evan Dorey's game previews & rankings are based on Elo Ratings. Elo Ratings are fairly simple, all teams are assigned an initial number of points, which is the same for all teams, eliminating preseason bias. Then, as the season progresses, when a team wins it gains points, and when it loses it drops points. The amount of points that are gained or lost depend on the level of the opponent (beating a cupcake gets you little, beating #1 will be a big increase), the scoring margin of the game (which is capped), and the game’s location. To take a look at Evan's College Basketball Elo Ratings, visit his website or blog where he discusses the rankings along with other statistical observations about big games and interesting teams.
With the early-season tournaments mostly behind us, Fridays become a bit of an doldrums for college basketball, with only a few games on the docket. Hopefully, though, looking at these Friday games will give me a chance to really highlight some less talked-about teams and players, and this game is no exception, featuring two teams that look to be in the title chase in the Atlantic Sun Conference, with #168 East Tennessee St. (4-3) travelling to Macon, GA, to face #89 Mercer (6-2, 1-0).
East Tennessee State was generally predicted by the media to compete at the top of the conference, picked 4th in the CHN Preview, and 2nd and 3rd in the coaches and media poll, respectively. So far, they’ve had a solid start to the season, picking up two non D-I wins and a pair of tight neutral site losses, but coming up with a big four point victory over Marshall in their most recent game. Mercer’s expectations were much more modest, a consensus 6th place team, but it has easily been the most high profile of the A-Sun’s representatives, beating both Alabama and Auburn to open the year, and enters this game on a three game winning streak.
Mercer’s offensive play has been their strength, as they are very effective in getting back misses and making free throws. Their shooting percentages are decent, right around the national average, and they keep a pretty balanced approach between the inside and outside. The biggest problem for the Bears is turnovers, as they have been coughing it up one out of every four times down the floor. The Buccaneers, for their part, haven’t been too good defensively, allowing opponents to shoot over them from the outside very efficiently. They are solid defensive rebounders, which sets the scene for a good battle inside.
For their part, the Buccaneers tend to funnel the ball inside, and have been around average offensively when they’ve managed to do this. East Tennessee hasn’t done much offensive rebounding, and has struggled from three and from the line, but has been solid in taking care of the ball. This last point will be a big benefit, as Mercer has been among the worst in the country in forcing turnovers. The Bears have been average defending inside, and may be able to hold off the Bucs attack, but they will need to be vigilant about keeping the possessions even and taking care of the ball, as their turnover margin has typically been very poor.
Mercer’s offensive approach has been balanced so far, but there’s little question their most efficient players are their big men. Junior Daniel Emerson has put up 4 double-doubles, and while 46% from the field isn’t great, he is a decent enough three shooter, and a solid free throw shooter, so he is on the whole an offensive benefit. He also averages more than 10 rebounds a game, and will be a key guy in the paint. Senior Calvin Henry is another solid interior shooter who can step out and hit threes when necessary, and also is a strong rebounder, averaging 8 per game. The Bears’ leading scorer is a guard, junior James Florence, but he has taken too many poor shots, just barely above 35% from the field. He also is the primary ball handler, and struggles with turnovers, posting a nearly even A/TO ratio. Still, he was on the CHN Preseason All-Atlantic Sun team, so there is some hope he will be able to find his game. Mercer may be well served by finding junior guard E.J. Kusnyer for more shots, as the 6-5 Juco transfer has shot very well from behind the arc.
East Tennessee has the somewhat odd distinction of taking most of its shots from the inside, despite depending heavily on guards for scoring. The team’s leading scorer is senior Kevin Tiggs, a 55% shooter who has added 5 rebounds to his impressive average of 21 points per game. Tiggs was the key player in the win over Marshall, when he put up 31 of the team’s 76 points. Tiggs is effective, but doesn’t lead the team in shot attempts, Courtney Pigram does. Pigram, a CHN preseason all-A-SUN guard, tends to let threes go more often, but has been a much lower-percentage shooter than Tiggs. He also distributes the ball well, with a conference-leading 6 assists per game. The third key player is junior Mike Smith, who leads the team in rebounding, and provides a solid scoring option inside. A question mark for the Bucs is the potential return of 6-11 freshman Seth Coy, who was very effective in the first three games, shooting over 70% from the field, but suffered a foot injury in the team’s fourth game, and has missed the subsequent games. In Coy’s absence, Isiah Brown and Greg Hamlin play inside.
While East Tennessee may be able to cause a lot of havoc for the Bears by forcing turnovers, I can’t overlook Mercer’s great road wins against power conference opponents and their good form coming into this home game. The Buccaneers are a good team too, and don’t be surprised to see them win it, but I think Mercer is a clear favorite in this one.
Winner: Mercer Margin: 5-9