NEW YORK — Mercer University, an 8,300-student school in Macon, Ga., stole the basketball spotlight Friday when its 14th-seeded Bears upset third-seeded Duke in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens has ties to Mercer, as it was the only Division 1 college to offer him a basketball scholarship when he was coming out of high school in Zionsville, Ind.
When asked if it was special for him to see Mercer win, Stevens pointed out that he didn’t watch much of the game.
“But I heard the part where they haven’t been to the tournament since 1985,” Stevens said before the Celtics lost to the Brooklyn Nets, 114-98, at Barclays Center. “That’s kind of what makes the tournament special.”
In a phone interview, former Mercer coach Bill Hodges recalled his mid-1990s recruitment of Stevens, then a sharp-shooting guard.
“We felt like he could come in and play as a freshman for us,” Hodges said.
But was Stevens D-1 material?
“There wasn’t any question about that,” Hodges said. “He could shoot the heck out of the basketball. He could handle going both ways and he could pass both ways.”
Hodges is most famous for coaching former Celtics star Larry Bird at Indiana State University in the late 1970s.
And while Hodges didn’t want to compare Stevens with Bird in any way, he did say that they had similar basketball IQs.
“Totally different positions, but [Brad] was smart, like Larry,” Hodges said.
Hodges, who hails from Zionsville, said his brother first alerted him to Stevens during Stevens’s senior year in high school. At the time, Hodges’s brother lived in Lebanon, Ind., about a 20-minute drive from Zionsville.
“He called and he said, ‘Have you seen Brad Stevens play?’ ” Hodges said. “I said no. He said, ‘Well, he’s at Zionsville.’ I said, ‘Well, I better send somebody to see him then.’ ”
Hodges eventually saw Stevens play in person, but ultimately Stevens decided to stay in Indiana at DePauw University, a Division 3 school.
“I actually spoke to his dad,” Hodges said. “He let me know that Brad and his mom didn’t want him to go that far away from home.”
In general, Stevens said he doesn’t always root for small schools such as Mercer, even though he coached at one — mid-major Butler University.
“You know, I actually pull for people I know first and foremost, and then like anybody else, if you don’t know anybody on either sideline, you pull for what would be perceived to be the underdog,” Stevens said.
Babb gets contract
The Celtics formally announced the signing of guard Chris Babb to a multiyear contract.
Babb, whose second 10-day contract expired Thursday, will remain with the team through at least the remainder of the season, though future seasons are nonguaranteed, which allows the Celtics to use his deal as a potential trade asset.
It’s unclear if Babb will be with the team beyond this season, but, Stevens said, “I really like Chris. I really like having him around. He’s a very versatile guy as far as, you can throw him into the game at the [shooting guard position] or the [small forward position]. He hasn’t got as much opportunity over the past few days, but he’s a guy you feel comfortable with in the basketball game.”
Babb, a 6-foot-5-inch undrafted rookie out of Iowa State, joined the Celtics in late February while starting guard Avery Bradley was sidelined with a right ankle sprain.
Babb played just two minutes Friday but hit his only shot, a 3-pointer. He’s averaging 2.3 points over 10.1 minutes in seven games.
In terms of his future with the team, Babb said, “Hopefully I’ll be able to make it work.”
Celtics guard Chris Johnson won some NCAA Tournament bragging rights over teammate Jared Sullinger, as Johnson’s alma mater (Dayton) beat Sullinger’s (Ohio State) Thursday, 60-59.
They were keeping track of the game during the team’s flight to New York. “The Wi-Fi went out right just when it was, I want to say, [tied] at 55,” Sullinger said. “So from there, we were like, ‘Ah, this is crazy.’ ”
“Once we landed,” Johnson said, “I was kind of asleep, and [Sullinger] threw a ketchup packet at me, and he was like, ‘Yeah, y’all won by 1.’ I was happy.”
No bets were made. “Just bragging rights,” Johnson said. “I might make him wear a Dayton shirt for a day.”
Said Sullinger, “I’m happy for Dayton. They needed a win like this.”Baxter Holmes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BaxterHolmes.