Tiny Dancers: Mercer Bears reach NCAA Tournament after 29-year gap

C (USATSI)
Langston Hall and the Mercer Bears are back after 29 years away. (USATSI)

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Don't you love when longtime absentees make it back to the Big Dance? Sunday had a double dose of that. First it was Coastal Carolina out of the Big South, and now we've got the Mercer Bears representing the Atlantic Sun. Appropriate and/or ironic timing, given Mercer is moving to the Southern Conference next season.

The Bears haven't punched a ticket to the big ball since 1985. But they'll be going now after toppling last March's first weekend media darling Florida Gulf Coast .

Dunk City was grounded in the Atlantic Sun title game 68-60. The Bears and Eagles played an incredibly entertaining game -- featuring a few ridiculous slams again by FGCU -- but it was the steady hand and constant resolve of Mercer that won out.

And what a sweet win this is for the program, which avenged its two prior A-Sun tourney losses in the last two seasons to FGCU. And last year, the Eagles won on the Bears' home court. This time around, the favor was returned. And now we've got our fifth team in the 2014 NCAA Tournament, as Mercer made it official only two minutes after Wichita State took the auto bid for the Missouri Valley.

You really know March is truly here when you start seeing these small schools celebrating and filling up the auto-bid queue. The A-Sun has been well-represented in recent years with Belmont's appearances (now in the OVC) and FGCU's Sweet 16 run in 2013.

Player to know: Langston Hall. He leads the Bears with 14.7 points and 5.7 assists per game. Mercer is absolutely capable because it has two guys 6-feet-10 or taller in addition to its array of guards. Hall is the most important, but this team -- which only lost to Texas by three points -- does operate like a high-major school in how it distributes minutes. It's really six deep, and that's not a bad thing.

The Vitals:

  • Record: 26-8 overall, 14-4 in the Atlantic Sun
  • Most recent tournament appearance: 1985 (lost as 15 seed)
  • Jerry Palm predicts: 15 seed
  • RPI: 85
  • KenPom ranking: 102
  • Sagarin ranking: 95
  • Best wins: vs. Seton Hall, at Ole Miss
  • Worst losses: vs. North Florida (twice), at Evansville
  • Notable stat: 2.56. The average seasons of experience these Bears have, making them the fifth-oldest team in college hoops. That has value, absolutely. It's been a long time coming for this program, and it took a group of vets to finally get through to Selection Sunday. The only probable NCAA Tournament team that's older than Mercer: North Carolina Central (2.57 seasons of experience).
  • Closing quip: The Bears will be able to make a game out of their Round of 64 opportunity if they keep on draining it from deep. The team shoots nearly 40 percent from 3, and we know that's a key in many sports for low majors in order to pull out an upset or at least keep it dramatic.
CBS Sports Writer

Matt Norlander is a national award-winning writer who has been with CBS Sports since 2010. He's in his seventh season covering college basketball for CBS, and also covers the NBA Draft, the Olympics and... Full Bio

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