RALEIGH, N.C. -- Mercer is making its first NCAA tournament appearance since 1985, and Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski figures it’s been at least that long since he’s had a team configured like this.
Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood, the Blue Devils' two most gifted players, are as inexperienced as the Bears when it comes to the NCAA tournament. Krzyzewski said he can’t remember the last time his two best players were both in their first year of playing. The names he brought up -- Johnny Dawkins and Mark Alarie -- were part of his first recruiting class that made a Final Four.
“Rodney and Jabari, this is their first NCAA tournament just like for the guys at Mercer,” Krzyzewski said. “For a number of our guys, for almost half our team, it’s our first NCAA tournament. So I hope it’s a good one for us.”
It could actually be the only tournament moment for Parker and Hood, as both could end up turning pro at the end of the season.
“[Mercer is] kind of looking forward to the game too, because it’s their first appearance for a long time,” Parker said. “So we’re going to try to treat it like them, because this may be the last time we might play together with the guys on the team.”
Mercer uses seven seniors in its top nine rotation, including its five starters. Krzyzewski said the Bears won’t be intimidated and that this group of Blue Devils had to prove something to themselves.
“It’s not given to you, you got to keep earning it,” Krzyzewski said. “But because of what we’ve done [as a program], a lot of people think that this group of guys have done that. They haven't done it.”
Mercer coach Bob Hoffman has been quick to point that fact out to his players. Hoffman doesn’t want his team focusing on the Blue Devils’ Final Fours and national championships when only Andre Dawkins remains from their 2010 national title team.
“We’re not playing all those other guys who have made runs,” Hoffman said. “We’re playing the team that’s going to walk on the floor tomorrow.”
Mercer has an edge about it. The Bears -- not Florida Gulf Coast -- were supposed to amaze the college basketball world in last season’s tournament after winning the Atlantic Sun regular-season title. But a loss in the conference tournament sent FGCU to the tournament and its improbable, yet endearing, run to the Sweet 16. Mercer was relegated to the NIT.
“We were right there, had won the regular season, and then they beat us on our floor, cut the nets down,” Hoffman said. “And for 365 days, our guys worked harder than any team in the country individually to get a chance to get back to the same moment.”