#11 Tennessee (23-12, 11-7 SEC) vs. #14 Mercer (27-8, 14-4 Atlantic Sun)
Sunday, March 23, 6:10 p.m ET
PNC Arena (19,772) . Raleigh, N.C.
Radio: Vol Network (WGOW-FM 102.3, Chattanooga)
Series Record: Mercer leads 4-1
Winner advances to the Sweet 16 and plays the winner of #7 Texas vs. #2 Michigan next weekend in Indianapolis
Probable Mercer Starters
G-Langston Hall, 6-4, 180, SR (14.6 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 5.6 apg)
G-Anthony White Jr., 6-3, 185, SR (8.4 ppg, 2.5 rpg, .434 3FG%)
F-Bud Thomas 6-6, 200, SR, (8.9 ppg, 4.1 rpg, .386 FG%)
F-Jacob Gallon, 6-6, 200, SR, (8.2 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 2.6 apg)
C-Daniel Coursey, 6-10, 220, SR (10.1 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 2.0 bpg)
Key Reserves:Ike Nwamu (6-5, 205, SO); Darious Moten (6-6, 195, JR); T.J Hallice (6-9, 205, JR)
Probable Tennessee Starters
G-Antonio Barton, 6-2, 180, SR, (7.4 ppg, 2.2 rpg, 2.1 apg)
G-Jordan McRae, 6-6, 185, SR, (18.7 ppg, 3.4 rpg, .369 3FG%)
G-Josh Richardson, 6-6, 190, JR, (9.6 ppg, 2.9 rpg, .337 3FG%)
F-Jeronne Maymon, 6-8, 260, SR (10.1 ppg, 8.3 rpg, .538 FG%)
F-Jarnell Stokes, 6-8, 260, JR, (15.1 ppg, 10.5 rpg, 4.1 orpg)
Key Reserves:Darius Thompson (6-5, 180, FR); Derek Reese (6-8, 220, SO); Armani Moore (6-5, 215, SO)
The opening tip
Toss our your bracket. Tennessee and Mercer are set to battle in the Round of 32 on Sunday evening in Raleigh for a trip to the Sweet 16. Few had either team making it this far.
For Tennessee, it will be the third game in five days after the Vols knocked off Iowa in the ‘First Four,’ moved on to Raleigh and destroyed UMass in the Round of 64 on Friday.
Mercer’s route has been shorter, but perhaps sweeter for the A-Sun champs. The Bears brought virtually the entire city of Macon, Ga., up to the arena in Raleigh and stunned the No. 3 seeded Duke Blue Devils on Friday afternoon in what was supposed to be virtually a home game for Duke, which was playing close to its campus in Durham.
The Bears have the look of a classic Cinderella team. They’re experienced, balanced, well-coached and aren’t intimidated by any ‘major’ program – especially not Tennessee. The Bears came to Knoxville and pulled off an upset in the first round of last year’s NIT, defeating the Vols 75-67. As a program, Mercer is 4-1 against Tennessee.
But on the other hand, if there’s any team in the nation that will respect Mercer like the talented team it is, it might be Tennessee.
“I feel like from playing them last year, we understand that they’re a very good team and they’re playing with a chip on their shoulder and we’re also playing with a chip on our shoulder,” said UT forward Jarnell Stokes. “Soit’s the NCAA tournament, as you can see, anything can happen.”
Tennessee, which has now won seven of its last eight games, continues to excel on the defensive end. The Vols have held their last seven opponents to an average of just 52.7 points per game. Mercer will be another challenge on that end. The Bears led their conference in scoring at 79.2 point per game. They kept that output up against Duke, dropping 78 in their 78-71 win over the Blue Devils.
All five starters average at least 8.2 points per game. Guard Langston Hall leads the offense with 14.6 points per game and 5.6 assists per contest. Martin knows Mercer will test UT, but he feels like the Vols are playing the best defense of his tenure in Knoxville.
“I think we have five guys that are defending, taking pride in defending,” coach Cuonzo Martin said. “More importantly, understanding if you defend at this level, there are results behind it. And I think that’s the thing they embrace more than anything.”
Jarnell Stokes will be a player to watch for Tennessee. He had 14 points and 13 boards against the Bears last year and is coming off a career-high of 26 points and 14 rebounds against UMass.
Martin also singled out Antonio Barton and Josh Richardson as players who have given UT a lift down the stretch. Barton’s shot has been cold recently, but he’s handled the point well. Richardson has emerged as the team’s stopper on defense and is averaging 16 points per game so far in the NCAA tournament.
“We’re just keying in on our assignments and we’re helping each other out a lot. We’re just relying on each other and trusting each other. That’s what we tell each other before every game. We’re going to go out there and die for each other.”
– Barton on why the team has picked it up on the defensive end
Reserve center Monty Brown (concussion) will miss the game for the Bears. . He only averages 10 minutes per game, but he is their biggest player at 6-11, 250 pounds, giving them less options to defend Tennessee’s burly post duo of Stokes and Jeronne Maymon. . The Vols are shooting 80.3 percent from the free-throw line so far in tournament play. . The Vols have already secured their fifth-best season ever in terms of victories with 23. . A win would put the Vols in the Sweet 16 for the fourth time in the last eight years. . Martin and Mercer coach Bob Hoffman have met one time with Hoffman picking up the win. . A No. 14 seed hasn’t advanced to the Sweet 16 since UTC did it in 1997. It has only happened twice in tournament history. . This is the only NCAA tournament game in the Round of 32 featuring two double-digit seeded teams.
At first glance, it looked like this might be as far as Tennessee had a reasonable chance of advancing with Duke likely in its way. But everything changed on Friday. The Devils got bounced and UT looked like a legitimate threat to go deep in the tournament. That doesn’t mean Mercer will be an easy out for the Vols. The Bears’ fan support is great and their balance and experience make them tough to defend. But the Vols are playing at such a high level on defense and looked comfortable getting into the lane and making easy shots against UMass. Losing to Mercer last year should mean the Vols don’t take the Bears lightly at all. If they have that mentality, they have a great shot at leaving with yet another win.
Tennessee 74, Mercer 71
Daniel Lewis covers University of Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga