Good-news Bears a needed respite
Like the rest of us, the Mercer Bears have seen and heard much from the sleazy side of college basketball in the past week -- the Tony Cole-Jim Harrick scandal, the St. Bonaventure players quitting on their season, the Fresno State team being banned from the postseason because of academic fraud.
March madness, indeed.
"The whole UGA thing, I don't know," said Wesley Duke, a Mercer forward from Norcross. "It makes it seem like everybody is fattening his pockets."
Then, with a smile: "Makes it unfair to little schools like us that don't have any money."
Then, seriously: "They've got to clean it up."
And about St. Bonaventure canceling its final two regular-season games because its players voted not to play them after being barred from postseason for using an ineligible player: "That bothers me," Duke said. "They should play. And I'm sure they have an intramural league there, so just send out 10 guys who want to play."
The Mercer Bears came from Macon to Atlanta Wednesday, the top-seeded team in the Atlantic Sun Conference tournament that opens today at Georgia State. And if you need a Cole-Harrick antidote, we suggest . . . the good-news Bears.
Here's a squeaky clean program that, oh, by the way, has a 22-5 record this season.
Forget Tony Cole for a moment. Focus on Wesley Duke. He is a computer information systems major who has torn the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee three times -- first as a high school senior, next in the first game of his freshman season at Mercer and again on the day before the 2001 conference tournament. Each time, he had surgery, rehabbed for a year and returned to the game he loves.
"After the third one," Duke said, "the doctor asked me, 'You sure you want to play some more?' I'm like, 'Yeah, you fix me up, and I'm going back at it.' "
Then there is 6-11, 285-pound senior center Justin Howard, who showed up at Mercer as a 330-pound walk-on attracted to the school by its academic reputation. Turned out, "there was a player underneath that body," Bears coach Mark Slonaker said. A finance major, Howard earned a scholarship after one season.
Slonaker compares coaching Mercer to coaching Vanderbilt, and he means it as high praise of both jobs. "I always admired Vandy, always wanted the Vandy job," the former Georgia player and assistant coach said, "because of the combination of academics and athletics. Someone once told me, 'If you could get the Kentucky job, that's the one you'd want in the SEC if you left Georgia,' and I said, 'No, I'd like the Vandy job.' On a smaller scale, Mercer is that situation."
Feeling better about college hoops yet?
Slonaker, 46, said it would be premature for him to comment on the Cole case. But he is disturbed by much of the news that college basketball has made lately.
"It's not good for our game, and we bring it on ourselves, all of the hits we take and the black eyes," he said. "There is a lot of good in this game. We've got to get that in the forefront."
The good-news Bears will do what little they can.
TWENTY YEARS ALREADY?
Twenty years ago this month, Hugh Durham took the Georgia basketball program to its only Final Four. "Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn't" seem that long ago, he said. Today, Durham takes his Jacksonville University team into the Atlantic Sun tournament.
Now 65 and doubling as Jacksonville's athletics director, Durham plans to coach at least two more years.
As for the turmoil enveloping Harrick, Georgia's third coach since firing Durham in 1995: "He and I have been friends for a long time," Durham said. "You sit there [watching on TV], and it's painful because of what he's going through. . . . I hope everything turns out OK."
AND FINALLY . . .
Slonaker has had a standing commitment to his players for a couple of years: If they win the conference tournament, they can shave his head.
"The clippers will be on hand" Saturday if Mercer reaches the title game, Howard said.