Duke arrived in Raleigh, N.C., with the second-best coach in the history of the sport and maybe the best player and certainly the best rookie of this season. On raw talent, the Blue Devils had three players — the freshman Jabari Parker, plus Rodney Hood and Rasheed Sulaimon — better than than any Mercer player ever. (Apologies to the estimable Sam Mitchell, who led the Bears to 1985 NCAA tournament. They lost to Georgia Tech on a Friday night at the old Omni.)
But college basketball isn’t just a game of talent. If it were, Kentucky or Kansas would win it all every year. It’s a sport in which mesh matters, and Mercer had the better mesh by far.
Yes, Mercer. Yes, better than Duke, which is something we rarely see.
Mike Krzyzewski has forged a Hall of Fame career by taking his’n and beating your’n and vice versa, but this time he couldn’t take his McDonald’s All-Americans and beat Bob Hoffman’s modest assemblage. Mercer starts five seniors, and as sophomores and juniors those younger Bears were unlucky to lose in the Atlantic Sun tournament. (Last March they lost the final at home to Florida Gulf Coast, which as Dunk City would go on to NCAA glory.)
And that’s the beauty of the Big Dance. Almost nobody outside Macon had heard of Hoffman before Friday, while everybody who has ever watched an NCAA game knows Coach K from the commercials, if not the actual winning. But Hoffman got way more from his men than Krzyzewski did — truth to tell, this season was the great coach’s worst bit of coaching — and nobody who watched this game could say that justice wasn’t served.
Mercer did exactly what an underdog has to do. It stayed close early and was in Position A (one point behind) at the half; it hung around when Duke got serious around the 11-minute mark, and down the stretch it simply out-executed the regal Dookies. The Bears were getting layups, while Krzyzewski’s men were hoisting NBA-range treys and going one-on-five.
If you’d never seen Duke play before, you wouldn’t have recognized these players as Blue Devils. If you hadn’t seen Mercer play before — and I’m guessing that goes for most of us — you had to wonder how it was the Bears were the 14th seed to Duke’s No. 3.
Again, that’s why the NCAA tournament remains the greatest continuing event in American sports. If Duke and Mercer played a best-of-seven series, the Bears might win twice. As it is, they had to win only this once. They had only to capture a moment — one shining moment, not to get all CBS schmaltzy on you — to press themselves forever into the memory book of famous upsets.
Only once since 2005 had a team based in Georgia won a game in this tournament, and that one — Georgia Tech over Oklahoma State in 2010 — has been long since forgotten. What Mercer did in Raleigh will be remembered for as long as there’s a Mercer University, as long as there’s a March and its attendant Madness.