Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
PROVO — One thing is certain — Mercer won't be intimidated when it visits the Marriott Center.
No. 3 seed BYU hosts the No. 7 Bears in the second round of the National Invitation Tournament Monday (7 p.m., MT, ESPNEWS).
Mercer is the regular-season champion of the Atlantic Sun Conference, finishing ahead of Florida Gulf Coast, which knocked off No. 2 seed Georgetown in the NCAA tournament and, on Sunday, advanced to the Sweet 16.
Only a home loss to Florida GC in the Atlantic Sun tournament prevented Mercer from an NCAA tournament berth. Mercer's only losses over the last two months came at the hands of Florida Gulf Coast.
What's more, the Bears (24-11) have won six consecutive postseason games, including last season's CollegeInsider.com Tournament championship. Mercer won the title game over Utah State — on the Aggies' home court.
This season, the Bears won regular season road games at Florida State and at Alabama, then won at Tennessee in the NIT first round.
In other words, the Cougars know they'll be in for a battle Monday night.
"They're a tough team. They went right at Tennessee, weren't scared at all," said BYU guard Tyler Haws. "They've got a very good system They're going to be hungry. They're going to want to come in here and beat us."
"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," said BYU coach Dave Rose.
Mercer thrives on playing away from home.
“This is our ninth road win this year,” Mercer coach Bob Hoffman said after defeating Tennessee. “Last year, we had 12 road wins. So it’s not a mistake, it’s not just something crazy that happened (Wednesday). These guys have been road warriors and done it at a high level.”
The winner of Monday's showdown will advance to the NIT quarterfinals against the winner of Monday's game (tipoff is at 8 p.m., MT) between No. 1 seed Southern Miss and No. 5 Louisiana Tech.
How are the Bears able to win so consistently on the road?
"They play within themselves," said Cougar guard Brock Zylstra. "Everything they get is some easy, easy layups on back cuts, dunks and ball screen and rolls. I think that's what teams aren't ready for, is how they do execute their offensive sets. Defensively, they play hard as well."
Against Tennessee, Mercer guard Travis Smith scored a game-high 25 points while guard Langston Hall and forward Daniel Coursey added 16 and 15, respectively.
"I'm really impressed, watching them on film," Rose said. "Obviously, against Tennessee, they were really good. They've got two guards that can really control the tempo of the game. Their big guys are long and big and pretty skilled. What really impresses us is 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. And defensively, they're really tough. They don't let you get to the basket much."
Rose said Mercer reminds him somewhat of Utah State.
"They're a team that can control tempo," Rose explained. "They don't waste possessions. You've got to beat them. They don't beat themselves."
BYU, which lost five of its last eight games before the NIT, has managed to pull together despite a disappointing season.
"We've got a great group of guys. We're not just a team on the court, but we get along really well in the locker room and off the court," Zylstra said. "We always have each other's backs. We didn't get all the wins that we wanted to, but I feel like it's maybe a success to our team how we've stuck together. A lot of teams can fall apart and say their season's over because they didn't make the NCAA tournament. But we want to win this tournament."
Rose said his team is motivated to extend the season.
"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 genuinely want to keep playing. Hopefully, our effort will show that on Monday night. Our effort last Tuesday night (against Washington) showed that the guys still want to play."
"The coaches are going to put together a good game plan. We'll be ready," Haws said. "We just want to keep playing and go as far as we can. That's what teams do in March. Hopefully, we can get this next one."
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