This “Canadian players in the NCAA Tournament” stat tracker at TSN.ca is all the proof you need of how well the Big Dance translates north of the border. Here, in a special collaboration with TSN’s Communications Department and Communications Officer Rob Duffy, Front Row presents further March Madness evidence in the form of TSN basketball analyst Sam Mitchell. [ESPN holds an equity interest in TSN.]
Most basketball fans know TSN basketball analyst Sam Mitchell as a 13-year NBA veteran and former coach of the Toronto Raptors, where he was named the 2006-07 NBA Coach of the Year.
What’s lesser known is that Mitchell is also a Mercer University basketball legend, having played four years at the Macon, Georgia institution, where he set the school scoring record and led the team to an appearance in the NCAA Tournament.
With Mercer making their first tourney appearance since he took them there back in 1985, Mitchell is not unlike the many ESPN personalities who acknowledge their own rooting interests in the Tournament. And when 14th-seeded Mercer scored a shocking upset over Duke on Friday afternoon, Mitchell simply couldn’t hide his jubilation, performing an impromptu post-game Irish jig (above) that quickly became something of an Internet sensation.
We caught up with Mitchell to get his thoughts on what the victory means to a proud Mercer alum, and to find out what the odds are that he could be dancing again when Mercer squares off against Tennessee later today.
Having played four years at Mercer and set the school scoring record, how did you feel to see them get such a historic win?
First of all, they haven’t been to the tournament in 29 years, since 1985, the team I played on. So it’s long overdue. Mercer is a great academic school, and they turn out great young men and women. And the fact that not only did they make the tournament, but to beat a famous team like Duke, it meant the world.
I’m probably happier for them at this stage of my life than I would have been for myself. At 21, I wouldn’t have understood, but at 50, I understand the significance for the school. It’s going to change the face of the school and the way people think about the Mercer program.
What compelled you to do the Irish jig on-air?
Well I’m sitting here with my old Irish buddy, [TSN analyst and former Niagara head coach] Jack Armstrong, and of course St. Patrick’s Day has just passed, and I said, “Jack, if Mercer wins, you’re gonna see me get up and do an Irish jig.” He laughed, and [host] Gurdeep [Ahluwalia] dared me to do it. Anytime a youngster like that dares me to do something, I’ll do it. Within reason, of course.
There’s something about Mercer and dancing, it seems. You saw this?
Yes I did, and I thought to myself, I might have to talk to the school president, because Mercer is a private Christian school, and some of those dance moves were. . . a little risqué! They were doing some dirty dancing after that game! But I’m sure the president would laugh and say, you know what, when you beat Duke, I would turn a blind eye and let you do a little dirty dancing. In fact, if they beat Tennessee, I won’t do another Irish jig, I might get down and do a little dirty dancing of my own!
What was your experience like that season you went to the Tournament with Mercer in 1985?
As a senior, it’s a great feeling of accomplishment to make it to the NCAA tournament. Think about it: only 68 teams get to go to the Big Dance. They say it all the time, “Regardless of the odds, you have to buy a lottery ticket in order to win.” You have to get into the tournament, regardless of what your seeding is, to have a chance to win. Mercer gave themselves a chance.
We had a great team that year. We won 20-plus games, and won our conference tournament. That was a huge thing, qualifying for [the Tournament]. It’s a great sense of pride, knowing you’re going to the Big Dance with the big boys. We faced off against a great Georgia Tech team, but we hung in there and ended up losing by seven points. [Mitchell had 17 points and six rebounds and played 40 minutes.]
As an analyst, what do you believe Mercer has to do to keep winning?
Well, I sent [Coach Bob Hoffman] a text to remind them to enjoy this one, but stay focused, and keep advancing. If you know you can beat Duke, you know you can beat anyone. You’ve got to go into that game with the same mentality and the same confidence. They’ve got to play good defense, rebound, and they can’t let Tennessee, who are very athletic, beat them on the boards the way Duke did. If they can control the boards, run their offense, and avoid turning the ball over, with the way they shoot, they have a chance.
You spoke to the team last week, too?
Well, we actually had the Mercer team on the set of NBA TV last Monday, and I got a chance to talk to the players. I cracked the joke, like in the movie Hoosiers, “The coach needs to walk you out on the court and show you that the basket is 10 feet high and the court is 94 feet long. You’ve seen these [Duke] guys play, and they’re not invincible, they’re beatable.” They took that to heart.
We see it all the time, there’s always one lower seed that goes a lot further than people think they will. After beating Duke, they have to realize that the Sweet Sixteen is realistic. They’re one game away from the Sweet Sixteen, and once you get there, depending on your confidence, the matchup, and your play, you have a chance.
Coach Hoffman has done an unbelievable job. You can see the joy on his face, to recruit seven freshmen, and to beat Duke with those same seven players you brought in four years ago. It’s almost like seven of your sons. It just makes you proud.
Also, I can’t say enough about Coach K going into the locker room to congratulate those guys. He understands what it means to a program like Mercer. As devastated as he is with Duke’s loss, he had enough in him to comprehend what that win just did for that program. It’s the biggest day in the history of the Mercer basketball program. These kids, they made history. This is something they can talk about forever.
– By Rob Duffy