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RALEIGH, N.C. – Bob Hoffman likes uncut film and doesn't like advanced statistics.

He likes taking his Mercer players out to dinner to celebrate a big win, but rarely lets them "splurge" and order iced tea, soda or a slice of cake.

He prefers pens and paper over printouts.

In fact, notebooks may very well be one of the reasons Mercer is on the precipice of a Sweet 16 appearance.

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"We don't give scouting reports out," Hoffman says. "We make them write them all down, which is different but I've always done that because I think it helps you remember. It gives you more ownership of how you go about your business."

Players use the same notebooks for team-bonding exercises. On bus rides, the coaching staff will sometimes ask them to find out what they don't know about their teammates. The names of their sisters and brothers, what sports they played in junior high, that sort of thing.

"They just talk," Hoffman says. "They take their headphones off and talk, which is a lost art. To me that's about learning how to communicate, which is something we don't do very well anymore. We do spend a lot of time on those silly exercises.

"I've had a lot of close teams. … I would say they're probably the closest team (I've ever coached)."

Players say Hoffman intentionally schedules early-season scrimmages far away from their campus in Macon, Ga., for this particular reason.

"A lot of people like to do their scrimmages at home so they don't have to travel," senior forward Jakob Gollon said. "Coach Hoffman likes us to do our scrimmages 10, 12 hours away and take a bus to get there. So that we have to do a lot of team-bonding. I've always joked that it's probably one of the silliest things because we're already such a close team and we don't need that.

"But that's the kind of guy he is and the kind of environment he wants. There are a lot of opportunities for us to develop relationships throughout the year."

***

Gollon is one of seven seniors on Mercer's roster – five are starters – an astounding number when you compare it to the makeup of most bluebloods nowadays. Consider Duke, the No. 3 seed Mercer dispatched in the round of 64; the Blue Devils started one senior, a redshirt sophomore, two true sophomores and a freshman.

It's too simple to say experience matters, because not every veteran-laden team finds the kind of success that this Mercer team has. It all comes down to people.

For the Bears, that begins with Hoffman, who's coached everything from high school ball to NAIA women's hoops to the NBA's D-League. Sports fans view Mercer as a small-conference school wearing glass slippers; to Hoffman getting the D-I coaching gig in a league in 2008, Mercer seemed "like the Taj Mahal."

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His assistants are similar. None of them played Division I basketball (Hoffman played at Oklahoma Baptist, an NAIA school). They've had to work hard for every inch of ground they've gained in their careers; nothing has been given to them, Hoffman said.

Then, of course, the seniors.

Gollon is the only one on the roster Hoffman didn't recruit. Gollon had committed to former coach Mark Slonaker and wasn't sure what would happen when Hoffman was hired.

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"I didn't know if he was going to want me around; I didn't know if I would fit his system," Gollon said. "I did know one thing after I met him – he's a very passionate guy. I knew for sure I wanted to stay and be a part of the program. turns out it was the best decision I ever made."

Suffering through two season-ending injuries only reinforced that. Despite the difficulty and loneliness that comes with that type of setback, Gollon learned he was surrounded by "good, high-character people that can help you pull through." Now, the running joke is that the sixth-year senior is the team's Grandpa. "I think he's been in college," redshirt junior Darious Moten said, "since I was in kindergarten."

***

Of the other seniors, David Coursey thinks he was the easiest recruit – his sister and brother had attended the school. Monty Brown nearly went to Harvard; his connection to an AAU coach in Hoffman's home state of Oklahoma led him to Mercer. Kevin Canevari could have taken his dancing moves to UNC Asheville, but chose to walk on with the Bears instead. (He's now on scholarship.) A Colorado native, Bud Thomas had never heard of Mercer. Neither had Anthony White Jr., who's from Indianapolis.

Even point guard Langston Hall – the most important piece of this whole puzzle – wasn't entirely sure where this small private school was located.

"I'm from the Atlanta area, and there's a Mercer campus in Atlanta," Hall says. "It's like right next to my high school, like 10 minutes down the road. I was like, I definitely don't want to go here. No one wants to stay that close to home."

He searched online and discovered the main campus was in Macon, a little more than an hour outside of Atlanta. He took an unofficial visit, then an official one. He committed soon after.

"I was continually amazed that there were not more people recruiting him," Hoffman said. "I was excited that was happening. I thought it was a no-brainer that he was going to be as good as anybody possibly could be."

After this class arrived on campus, the bonding began almost instantly. Hall jokes that, as freshmen, they didn't know how to exclude anyone. So they'd always invite the whole group along to any outing or meal.

As Mercer incorporated new players into its program in the years since, that pattern never stopped.

"If we're going to the movie or to a party or just hanging out on campus, you'll see us eight or nine or 10 deep, rolling as a team," Moten says. "That's what coach has preached to us over the last few years, being a team on and off the court."

This chemistry has led to unprecedented levels of success.

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Two years ago, Mercer won the CIT. A season ago, the Bears won the Atlantic Sun regular-season title and lost at home to Florida Gulf Coast in the A-Sun championship game. Earlier this month, they avenged that defeat, knocking off the top-seeded Eagles on the road to win the league title and earn an NCAA tournament bid for the first time since 1985.

Three seniors on this team have each scored more than 1,000 points in their careers. Hall was named the A-Sun player of the year; Coursey was the league's defensive player of the year. Together, this group makes up the winningest class in Mercer history – and that was before they led the 14th-seeded Bears to a 79-71 win against Duke, the program's first NCAA tournament victory.​

Mercer will face No. 11 Tennessee on Sunday in the round of 32.

"To go out like this, even if it's the Sweet 16 or Elite Eight or whenever we go out, I'm going to be glad we went out like this," Hall says. "It's been a great experience with these guys, and I wouldn't trade it for anything."

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