Duke set to face experienced foe

By Nick Piotrowicz

Sports Writer

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RALEIGH – For all the statistical advancements that have been applied to basketball in the past decade, measuring experience – or at least its importance to the outcome of games – still is a bit of a mystery.

In third-seeded Duke’s second-round game against 14th-seeded Mercer at 12:15 p.m. today, experience, or perhaps the lack of it, could prove vital.

Duke’s team was built for this year and likely this year only, while Mercer has seven seniors who have been playing together for years.

Four sophomores and a freshman are driving Duke’s chances. Duke’s two best players, Rodney Hood and Jabari Parker, have not played in the NCAA Tournament.

“This could be – we’re treating it like our last game because, if we lose, it is,” said Duke forward Rodney Hood, who is expected to declare for the NBA Draft after this season. “They have a great team. They won their conference. A lot of older guys, guys (who) have been playing together for a long time. We know it’s a big task ahead of us.”

Rotation player Marshall Plumlee has played only three minutes in the tournament, Amile Jefferson is in his first Big Dance as starter, and Rasheed Sulaimon will play his second for Duke.

The matchup of Duke (26-8) and Mercer (26-8) is reflective of the greater trend in college basketball, in which big programs have to chase players who, in many cases, stay only one year in college before going pro. For the Blue Devils, staying in the Top 10 has meant chasing players like Parker, who is believed to be a surefire lottery pick in the NBA Draft.

“We have to try to get the best players,” Duke coach Mike Krzysewski said. “We don’t know that they’re – if they’re one-, two-, three- or four-and-done. And then we adjust accordingly. … For us, it changed in the late (19)90s, and we’ve been trying to adapt accordingly since. Overall, we’re still pretty good.”

Simply out of necessity, many mid-major schools have to build slowly and carefully.

Mercer’s seniors went through just about everything in their careers. There was a losing season as freshmen, a championship in one of the “other” tournaments, the CIT, as sophomores, a near miss as juniors, and now their chance as seniors. It was the way Mercer had to build, and its players think their experience can be helpful today.

“Obviously, most of the mid-majors aren’t going to get too many top 50 recruits that are just planning on going to the NBA after one year, so I think that’s a big benefit to us,” Mercer forward Bud Thomas said. “I think that helps us a lot, and I think it (has) shown in the past, these past couple years especially, with so many mid-majors coming in, and even if they don’t win. They’re competing hard, and they’re right there with some of these big boys.”

Two years ago, Duke lost in a similar situation.

A No. 2 seed with one-and-done player Austin Rivers, Duke was stunned in Greensboro by a veteran Lehigh team paced by a conference player of the year at guard, which Mercer guard Langston Hall won in the Atlantic Sun Conference.

Even though many of Duke’s current players did not play in the Lehigh game, they are approaching the Mercer game cautiously, Hood said.

“There (are) no easy games in this tournament, and this is our first time being here, me and Jabari,” Hood said. “So, it’s going to be exciting, but we got to be prepared.”

While Duke had its struggles, particularly in December and January, the Blue Devils went 14-4 to end the season, including marquee victories against Syracuse, Pittsburgh and North Carolina. On the other side, Mercer said the game isn’t necessarily youth versus experience.

“Well, I think also it’s safe to say at this point in the year (that) being a freshman isn’t as big of a deal as it is at the start,” Mercer forward Jakob Gollon said. “They’ve got a little bit under their belt, too.”

Parker has recorded a double-double in 10 of the past 15 games, and Hood and Sulaimon had been playing their best of the season before the ACC championship game.

Krzyzewski said his team reverted to being a young team at the end of that game – a loss to Virginia – but it won’t be afforded the chance to keep growing anymore.

It’s March, and this is it.

“I mean, this has been a good group of kids to coach, and they’re a lot better now than they were were two months ago and a whole lot better than they were in November,” Krzyzewski said. “They’re still not as good as I would like them to be, but the clock – the clock stops right here.”