Like most coaches, American’s Jeff Jones will take a player out of the game if he picks up his second foul in the first half, which is why Jones sat down point guard Derrick Mercer with 10 minutes 57 seconds remaining until halftime in Saturday’s game against Lafayette. The Eagles had a 21-9 lead when Mercer left the game. By the time the buzzer sounded ending the half, they trailed by four.
“Sometimes I wonder about . . . that policy that a lot of coaches have about taking somebody out with two fouls in the first half,” Jones said. Mercer is “so important to us. I really didn’t want to take a chance on him getting a third [foul] in the first half. . . . Mercer going out obviously was a big thing.”
Without Mercer on the court, American became careless and inefficient on offense and lackadaisical on defense. Six of the Eagles’ seven first-half turnovers occurred with Mercer on the bench, and Lafayette scored on 12 of its final 15 possessions of the first half to go into halftime with a 43-39 lead.
“It’s a world of difference having him on the court,” Brian Gilmore said. “He’s so much of a threat off the dribble, and he gets guys open shots, being able to penetrate and get in there, being able to feed the post, being able to get shots for shooters. We love him when he’s on the court. He can’t keep getting into foul trouble because he’s important to the team.”
Mercer has done a much better job lately of not picking up what Jones calls “careless or undisciplined” fouls. At the beginning of the season, his physical defense often cost him playing time. “I’m a little bit too aggressive with the body,” Mercer said. “When I realize how the refs are [officiating] the game, that’s when I change the way I play.”
Since the Mount St. Mary’s game, however, Mercer has tempered his aggressiveness. In the past 13 contests, he has been tagged with three or more fouls in a game just four times. He finished with two fouls against Lafayette.
“It’s just a bad habit players get sometimes,” Jones said. “They try to slap and reach for the ball. He’s an aggressive defender, but we have to tell him to kind of fight that instinct. You look at our steal totals. [American ranks fifth in the league in steals per game.] Maybe part of it is because, particularly with Derrick, we coach them, ‘don’t reach’ because we just need them in the game. Now [Mercer] might be able to have significantly more steals, but that probably would turn into significantly fewer minutes.”
Since the Mount St. Mary’s game, Mercer has played in every minute of six games. He has eight 40-minute games this season. Before his 30-minute outing against Lafayette, Mercer had missed no fewer than four minutes a game in the last 13 contests.
There’s a reason Jones rarely rests Mercer: The Eagles operate more efficiently when he’s on the court. Mercer, who has the best assist-to-turnover ratio in league games, has that sought-after quality of making those around him better.
“He takes so much pressure off all of the other guys because he does so much,” Jones said. “When he’s in there, he gives us a little bit – we don’t have much – a little bit of a margin for error because he can kind of control the game and get what we want.
“We’ve got to be better when Derrick’s not in there. . . . That’s something we’ve got to address as a team. We play Derrick a lot of minutes. If he’s able to go, he’s going to be in there. But if for whatever reason he’s not in there, we need to be better as a basketball team, and that means everybody has to do a little bit more. There’s not one guy that we’re all of sudden going to rely on because Derrick’s out.”
February 2, 2009; 6:02 AM ET
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