Mercer is upset-minded as it faces Duke in NCAA tournament

CorrespondentMarch 20, 2014 

— Mercer, the 14th seed and Duke’s opening opponent in the NCAA tournament, wants to become this year’s Florida Gulf Coast, partly because the Bears thought they deserved to be last year’s Florida Gulf Coast. The 15th-seeded Eagles of “Dunk City” became the upset darlings of the 2013 NCAA tournament when they knocked off second-seeded Georgetown and seventh-seeded San Diego State to advance to the round of 16 before losing to third-seeded Florida.

“It was bittersweet to watch them make a run because it was from our league (Atlantic Sun),” Mercer coach Bob Hoffman said Thursday at PNC Arena. “We were right there, had won the regular season, and then they beat us on our floor, cut the nets down (in the conference tournament).”

Hoffman said his players used that disappointment as motivation for this season. But can the veteran Bears (26-8) duplicate Dunk City?

Jakob Gollon, a 6-foot-6 forward who is one of five senior starters for Mercer, thinks so.

“There was mixed feelings about (FGCU’s run),” he said. “Obviously it was really good for the Atlantic Sun, so we were happy about it in that aspect. On the other hand, it was hard to watch because we took down some mid-major schools. We know that had we been the team that got the bid, we probably could have done something similar. It was tough to watch.”

Krzyzewski wary: Despite its NCAA success, Duke (26-8) is no stranger to early-round struggles in the tournament. Remember Lehigh in 2012, Belmont in 2008 and Virginia Commonwealth in 2007? So coach Mike Krzyzewski and his players said Mercer had their full attention.

“I don’t want to pass up any teams and look over them,” freshman Jabari Parker said, “and try to look forward to the next game. I just got to take it step by step. Me and Rodney (Hood) been talking about it ever since conference play. We want to put ourselves in a good situation.”

Said Krzyzewski, “(Mercer is) a veteran team. They’re a team that’s won not just this year but in multiple years, and they’ve won together. Extremely well-coached. They make each other better. And (point guard Langston) Hall would be an outstanding guard in this league. I think any team in our league would like to have Hall. He’s the player of the year in their conference.”

Hall, a 6-4 senior, averages a team-high 14.7 points and 5.6 assists per game.

Long time, no see: Three teams in the Raleigh bracket are making their first NCAA tournament appearances in more than 15 years. Mercer hasn’t danced since 1985, Coastal Carolina (21-12) dates to 1993, Massachusetts (24-8) last appeared in 1998, and even George Washington (24-8), marking its 100th season of college basketball, last got a bid in 2007.

Tall order: In ninth-seeded George Washington, Memphis will face one of the tallest teams in the country. The Colonials feature seven players 6-8 or taller, led by 6-10 sophomore forward Kevin Larsen, who averages 11.3 points and 7.0 rebounds.

“They’re big, and not just in the frontcourt,” Memphis coach Josh Pastner said. “They’re big on the perimeter, at the wing and guard spots. They obviously have a size advantage over us.”

The Tigers (23-9) also will be missing one of their own big men, 6-10, 300-pound freshman Dominic Woodson.

Pastner cited “personal reasons” in leaving Woodson home.

“There was nothing that happened, nothing against the law, just a minor thing,” Pastner said. “But my No. 1 principle is no one’s bigger than the program, and that includes myself. That standard or principle will never change.”

Quick turnaround: Eleventh-seeded Tennessee has already played in this year’s tournament, having overcome Iowa in overtime Wednesday night, 78-65. But Volunteers coach Cuonzo Martin dismisses fatigue as a concern.

“When you talk about SEC tournament play, you play three games in three days,” he said. “That’s where conditioning comes in. For our guys, a day off is great as opposed to three straight games.”

Following Wednesday night’s nightcap in Dayton, the Vols flew to Raleigh, landed about 1:30 a.m. and an hour later checked into their hotel.

Cliff’s back: The last time Cliff Ellis was in these parts, he was coaching those physically imposing Clemson teams that featured future pros Dale Davis and Elden Campbell. They won the ACC regular-season title in 1989-90.

Virginia coach Tony Bennett also remembers them. As a player at Wisconsin-Green Bay, he played a game at Clemson in December 1990 that the Tigers won, 75-68.

“I didn’t think he’d remember me, but we talked about that,” Bennett recalled. “He knows my father obviously from coaching circles.”

Ellis remembered Bennett as a feisty and gutty player, traits he’s brought to the coaching ranks.

“Having coached in the ACC, I want to applaud Virginia,” he said. “For them to win two championships in a year, when it goes outside the state of North Carolina, you’ve really done something.”

That being said, Ellis hopes his Chanticleers can become the first 16th seed to beat a No. 1 seed in the tournament. This is fourth program he’s brought to the NCAA tournament, making him one of 10 coaches to do so with at least four or more schools.

“We’ve got a chance to make history,” he said.

“Somebody is going to do it. Is a difficult task? Yes. Is it impossible? No. I think the opportunity for a 16 seed to beat a 1 seed is better than it was 10 years ago. … It still has to be a perfect storm. But it’s getting to that point.”

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