On the day that Atlantic Sun tournament champion Florida Gulf Coast stunned Georgetown in the NCAA tournament, BYU prepared for an NIT Second Round game against the team that topped FGCU for the Atlantic Sun regular season crown.
The Mercer Bears won their league title by a game over Florida Gulf Coast, but lost to the Eagles in the conference tourney title game. Relegated to the NIT, the Bears won at Tennessee in their NIT opener on Wednesday; next up, a Monday game at BYU, which advanced with a win over Washington last Tuesday.
Mercer's performance in Knoxville, in conjunction with FGCU's upset in the NCAAs, will no doubt sharpen the Cougars' focus heading into a game that will send the winner on to the NIT quarterfinals.
"I'm really impressed watching them on film," said BYU head coach Dave Rose after Friday's Marriott Center practice, "and obviously (in) the game against Tennessee...they were really good."
"You go to Florida State and beat Florida State, you win at Alabama, then you win at Tennessee...you've got yourself a pretty good team."
"They're a tough team," said sophomore Tyler Haws in meeting with the media. "They went right at Tennessee. They're gonna be hungry, and they're going to want to come in here and beat us. Hopefully our guys will be ready to go."
Monday's game will represent a contrast in styles: BYU is the 7th-fastest team in adjusted tempo at almost 72 possessions per game, while Mercer is 300th in tempo at under 63 possessions per game. BYU averages 76.9 points per game; the Bears counter at 65.7 ppg.
"It's a team that has two guards (Langston Hall and Travis Smith) who can really control the tempo of the game," said Rose. "Their big guys are long...and pretty skilled. I think what really impresses us is just how efficient they are as far as executing their offense. They run a lot of sets; they're good at controlling the clock as far as getting late-possession shots."
Relative to style, Rose likened Mercer to Utah State, in that "they run their stuff really well in a half-court set. I think they're a little bit longer, the guards are maybe a little bit quicker, but it's a team that can control tempo, and they don't waste possessions. You've gotta beat 'em--they don't beat themselves."
It was suggested to BYU wing Brock Zylstra that Mercer might resemble Air Force in terms of offensive execution, and Zylstra concurred, noting that the Bears "run their offense really hard; most of the points they score are out of their offense, which is not normal for college teams, (which) run stuff, and then they get (scoring) after."
"They play hard, and they know their stuff," said Zylstra. "They play within themselves. They get some easy, easy lay-ups. I watched the beginning of the Tennessee game, and there were back-cuts, there were dunks, they (used) ball-screen-and-roll...easy stuff, because they execute so well."
"That's what teams maybe aren't ready for, is how well they do execute their offensive sets. And on defense, they play hard as well."
Rose said "defensively, they're really tough; it's a team that doesn't let you get to the basket much. It's hard to isolate them in the post because they really help well, so we're impressed. It's a good team."
In the most recent NCAA stats, Mercer ranked 21st in points allowed (58.4 ppg), and 32nd in field-goal percentage defense (39%).
Florida Gulf Coast's 88-point effort in the A-Sun tourney title game marks Mercer's season high in points allowed, and like BYU, FGCU plays a quicker-style game. BYU scored 90 points in last week's 76-possession win over Washington, and pushing the tempo is an every-game objective for Rose and the Cougars.
"We try to play fast no matter who we're playing," said Rose on Friday. "We're gonna try to play like we play, and that's what we'll do here."
A win over Mercer would leave BYU a single win away from a trip to New York City and the NIT semifinals. The last time BYU got one win away from Madison Square Garden was in the 1999-2000 season, when after home wins over Bowling Green and Southern Illinois, the Cougars took a road loss at Notre Dame.
BYU played two games in Brooklyn in November of this season, and despite the team suffering setbacks to Notre Dame and Florida State, Tyler Haws called it "definitely a highlight of the season, a great experience, and so we want to get back to New York and play in Madison Square Garden."
On the prospects of a return to NYC, Rose said "I hope that's not the motivating force here. I hope the motivating force is that they've got a game, and let's go win a game. If that's what you keep as your focus, I think that everything works better."
"The prize at the end of the deal here is hard to see. What we need to do is focus on the competitive nature of our business and right now we've got a game. A lot of teams don't have a game."
At 22-11 on the season, BYU has already extended some notable school records: eight consecutive seasons with 20+ wins, eight consecutive seasons with postseason play, and four consecutive seasons with at least one postseason victory. The Cougars' six-year streak of NCAA tournament appearances has been stopped, but Rose and his players are pleased that the team has persevered despite the disappointment of some unmet expectations.
"The one thing that is really impressive about this group of guys is how close they are," said Rose. "This is a really close-knit team, and they want to genuinely keep playing. Hopefully our effort will show that on Monday night. Definitely, our effort last Tuesday night showed that the guys still want to play."
Zylstra said "a lot of teams can fall apart and say their season is over because they didn't make the NCAA tournament, but we're together and we want to win this tournament."
"We just want to keep playing and go as far as we can," Haws said on Friday. "That's what teams do in March, and hopefully we can get this next one."
A crowd in excess of 10,000 is anticipated for Monday night's game; tickets remain on sale at BYUTickets.com or by calling 801.422.2981. Tickets are $10 for the general public, free to BYU students with an All-Sport pass, or $4 for BYU students without a pass.
The game can be heard on KSL Newsradio 102.7 FM/1160 AM and BYU Radio (SiriusXM 143), beginning with pregame coverage at 6:00 p.m. MT. The game tips at 7:00, and will be televised on ESPNEWS.
The BYU-Mercer winner will meet the survivor of Monday night's Southern Miss-Louisiana Tech game in Hattiesburg, with the quarterfinal contested at the home of the higher-seeded team.
You can hear post-practice interviews with Rose, Haws and Zylstra in "Cougar Cuts," above left.
Photo: Courtesy Jaren Wilkey, BYU Photo