TAMPA — A year ago, Mike Mercer was very much a former college basketball player.
Unable to play after his second major knee injury, Mercer had also been dismissed by coach Stan Heath from USF's basketball team after his second arrest in four months. It seemed his career, at Georgia and USF, would be remembered for injuries and dismissals, for the disappointment of missed opportunities.
But Heath kept Mercer on scholarship, hoping he would stick around and earn his degree, and after Mercer graduated in August and fulfilled the legal requirements of a pretrial intervention program to get a misdemeanor drug charge dropped, Heath took a chance by allowing Mercer back on the team.
It has paid dividends for the coach and player, as Mercer has been a key part of the Bulls' emergence this season and is grateful to be part of a team making a run at the NCAA Tournament.
"Coming back has been a blessing," said Mercer, who has started all but two games at small forward, averaging 8.7 points and 4.2 rebounds. "I'm grateful that Coach Heath and the coaching staff gave me another chance, and that's why I play my heart out every game. When you have a coach that's willing to go out on a limb for you, it makes you want to work that much harder for them."
USF (16-9, 6-7 Big East) is seeking the program's first NCAA berth in 18 years, and Mercer, a 6-foot-5 senior guard from Snellville, Ga., has given the Bulls another veteran presence and another scoring complement to ease the burden on junior guard Dominique Jones.
"He gives us another person besides me and (point guard Chris Howard) who has experience and knows what winning is like, has experienced adversity through their life," Jones said. "I think that him on the court has been a major factor for us. I don't think we would be this far without him."
Heading into today's game against St. John's, Mercer has shown little in games to suggest he has torn the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee twice. He's an athletic leaper and one of the Bulls' fastest players. He said he's not yet 100 percent but hopes he can get to full strength in the next month.
"I definitely don't feel 100 percent, but it comes with the territory," Mercer said. "Coming off two knee injuries, I'm grateful to be playing again. Once I do get 100 percent, I'm hoping that will happen when we really need it, around tournament time."
Mercer had never played a Big East game before this season — after transferring from Georgia in late 2007 and sitting out a year, he suffered a season-ending knee injury after just four games in December 2008. He started 23 games at Georgia as a freshman in 2006-07, averaging 13.6 points, but Mercer said the SEC doesn't compare to what he has seen this season.
"I can honestly say the Big East is the tougher conference," Mercer said. "It's more up-tempo. Players are more athletic. More teams, better teams, and every night is a constant battle. In the SEC, sometimes we had nights where we would take teams lightly because of who we were playing. You can't do that in the Big East."
Mercer has taken pride in his defense — he leads the Bulls with 1.7 steals per game in conference play and ranks among the league leaders. He said USF's strong play in the past month has started with solid defense, and the Bulls need more of the same in their five remaining regular-season games.
"Every man has to look in the mirror and want to lock their man down," he said.
Being dismissed from the team last season reminded Mercer that his focus should be on his classes, and his criminology degree is a source of pride, something that will help him in life after basketball.
"That was the one thing my mom wanted me to do, before even basketball," Mercer said. "She just wanted me to graduate from college, and I felt like I did that for her, to make her proud."
Mercer has been on the NCAA bubble before — Georgia was 14-9 his freshman year when he hurt his knee, but the Bulldogs went 3-3 down the stretch and settled for the NIT. Given a second chance, by his health and his behavior, Mercer wants to make the most of it.
"Senior year, this is the best way to go out," he said. " … I really and truly want to make the tournament. I want to experience that. I've had friends at other schools that have experienced it, and I just want to be there. And once you get in, anything can happen."