On the court at Georgia, former five-star prospect Mike Mercer often was a virtuoso. But off the court he was just so-so, and it eventually caught up with him.
After missing the final 10 games of the 2006-07 season with a torn ACL, Mercer never saw the court for the Bulldogs in 2007-08 because he was suspended for violating the school's new academic attendance policy. While serving what was a 15-game suspension, coach Dennis Felton announced Mercer "had become a disruption" and dismissed him from the team.
"I was immature," Mercer, who transferred and becomes eligible at USF after the first semester, told Rivals.com. "I'm the first to admit that. It's solely my fault. I don't blame anybody else.
"I definitely had some problems, disciplinary things and getting where I needed to be. It was immaturity. What happened has opened my eyes and let me know I have to take things more seriously."
On the court, Mercer handled his business. Before blowing out his knee against South Carolina, he was Georgia's second-leading scorer (13.5 points per game) as a sophomore. He also added 4.4 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.7 steals, displaying a solid all-around game for a 6-foot-4 combo guard.
What he couldn't do was adhere to the stringent academic attendance policies instituted by athletic director Damon Evans. The policies were instituted after Evans learned that Georgia's basketball and football teams ranked last in the SEC in graduation rates. Only 19 percent of Georgia basketball players who enrolled from 1997-2000 graduated within six years.
Mercer declined to discuss the specifics of his dismissal, but published reports said he missed several appointments with tutors and academic advisers. Felton grew frustrated, and one of the prizes of his 2005 recruiting class (five-star guard Louis Williams, a high-school teammate of Mercer's at South Gwinnett High in Snellville, Ga., went straight to the NBA) was sent packing.
Mercer said several big-time schools came around for his second recruitment, much as they had for his first.
Mike Mercer won't have been on the court for a game in more than 20 months when USF opens its season in November.
Surprisingly, he said it wasn't that difficult to watch his former team, Georgia, make its miracle run to the SEC tournament title and an automatic NCAA Tournament bid.
"It wasn't tough at all," Mercer told Rivals.com. "All of those guys are my friends. I kept in touch with them, texted them before games, congratulated them.
"It wasn't necessarily that I wished I was with them. Part of me wished I was on the floor for anything. Not just in the tournament, but I would have played for anybody. It's been a while since I stepped on court in a regulation game."
– BOB McCLELLAN
"I had a couple of other schools in the Big East recruiting me, some of the top ones, but I wanted to come here," Mercer said. "It's kind of the same situation as Georgia. I didn't want to go somewhere where the legacy is already there. I don't want to step into that and follow suit. We want to build something on our own."
The USF program could use some remodeling. It has been little more than a thatched hut amongst the skyscrapers in the Big East. The Bulls are 9-41 in three seasons in the league, including 5-13 this past season.
They lose leading rebounder and second-leading scorer Kentrell Gransberry (16.0 ppg, 10.8 rpg), but every other significant piece is back. Coach Stan Heath figures Mercer will pick up much of the scoring slack, and there are other reasons for optimism. Freshman guard Dominique Jones exploded on the scene, leading the Bulls in scoring (17.1 ppg). He was one of only four unanimous selections to the Big East All-Rookie team, joining Syracuse's Donte Greene and Jonny Flynn and Pittsburgh's DeJuan Blair. Junior guard Jesus Verdejo averaged a career-high 10.7 points. Sophomore guard Chris Howard ranked sixth in the Big East in assists (4.8 per game).
Can Jones and Mercer get along in the same backcourt?
"We're getting along really well," Jones said. "It's like I knew him for a while. He just got here, but it seems like that. We complement each other on the court. I think we're going to be real successful."
"I feel like we'll do well," said Mercer, who added that physically he is 100 percent and he will be playing without a knee brace this season. "We're a fast team. Dominique is a really good player.
"We all get along really well. Everything is fine here."
Jones said Mercer's past hasn't been discussed.
"We're just taking advantage of the fact he's here," Jones said. "We don't really care why. The biggest thing for us this year is winning, and Mike will be a big part of that."
Mercer hopes he can emerge as a leader on what is a relatively young team.
"I've always been a leader on the court, but issues off the court have taken away from that," he said. "I think my teammates will look to me as a leader when the ball goes up and the clock is ticking down."
Heath knows what he has in Mercer the player.
"His quickness and athleticism are exactly what we needed," Heath said.
He can only hope he'll get a more mature Mercer off the court.
"He came on his visit, and when he decided this was the place, we had a long talk with him and his dad, Mike Sr.," Heath said. "We sat down and said, 'It's not like you're coming here to a different set of rules. We're going to hold you accountable on the academic side.'
"He knew he had to step it up and we occasionally will sit down and make sure he's on track with everything. Nobody's perfect, but we feel like he's making progress."
Heath said he is friends with Felton, and the first call he made was to the Georgia coach. "He (Felton) said the kid needed to grow up, but he felt like a different environment, getting away from Atlanta, would be good for him," Heath said. "People he knows, friends, became a distraction. Coach Felton felt like being away from that would help him, and I think it has."
The change of scenery has to help him, for the sake of Mercer and Heath. The player's dream of making it to the NBA can't afford any more missteps. The coach's need to win depends greatly on the player being everything he was at Georgia and then some.
Except for off the court, where he'll need to be everything he wasn't. And then some.
Bob McClellan is the college basketball editor for Rivals.com. He can be heard on Rivals Radio every Tuesday at 8:15 a.m. ET and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.