RALEIGH, N.C. — The Mercer Bears introduced themselves to America early Friday afternoon when they took down perennial powerhouse Duke in the NCAA basketball tournament.
The Tennessee Volunteers were already well aware of the new darlings of this season's tournament.
Nearly a year before the 14th-seeded Atlantic Sun Conference champions eliminated the third-seeded Blue Devils in their own back yard, Mercer knocked Tennessee out of the 2013 National Invitation Tournament with a 75-67 win in Knoxville in a game that hardly was that close.
The Vols and Bears will meet again Sunday with an NCAA Sweet 16 trip on the line.
"I remember last year they definitely executed their plays against us very well, and we didn't really match their intensity," Tennessee guard Josh Richardson said after the Vols dispatched Massaschusetts 86-67. "We weren't very disciplined that game. They came in our own house and whupped us.
"We just can't let that happen again."
The Bears returned essentially their entire team from last season, when they won the Atlantic Sun's regular-season title only to lose to Florida Gulf Coast, which made a memorable run to the Sweet 16 as a No. 15 seed, in the conference tournament title game.
The Bears were much more excited to be in the NIT than the Vols, who felt unjustly left out of the NCAA tournament, and it showed as Mercer shot 50 percent and led by 10 in the second half.
"We know they can play," Vols leading scorer Jordan McRae said. "We knew they could play going into that game in Knoxville, but Mercer's a team that's going to run all their plays, they're going to set things up, and we've got to be ready for that.
"We'll have a little bit more energy this time."
Mercer coach Bob Hoffman watched Tennessee's dismantling of UMass from courtside after his Bears stunned Duke, and Vols assistants Jon Harris, Kent Williams and Tracy Webster, who split scouting responsibilities in such a tournament setting, watched Mercer pull off the upset of the tournament.
Against Duke, Mercer had five players score in double figures, shot nearly 56 percent from the field and used a late 9-0 spurt to win a tight game.
Many Tennessee players said in the locker room after their win they weren't surprised by the upset.
"I said it was going to be a close game," McRae said. "I thought Duke was going to pull it out, but I just knew how well Mercer's coached and the movement, I knew it was going to be a close game."
Jarnell Stokes, the Vols' All-SEC forward, said he would have picked the Bears had he filled out a bracket.
"I remember us thinking Mercer wasn't as good, and they made us pay for it," he said. "We know Mercer's a very good team. We know how well they run their offense, and Duke sometimes struggles on defense. It didn't surprise me at all."
Mercer, which is moving to the Southern Conference next season, brought a loud cheering section, including a good number of students, from its Macon, Ga., campus, and many more could make the trek to PNC Arena for Sunday's game.
The Bears are no longer a secret to the national audience, but the Vols have known about their next opponents for a while.
"Obviously it's something about them that they do really well," Tennessee forward Jeronne Maymon said, "so I'm pretty sure we'll figure that out and see what happens."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...