RALEIGH — What we learn every March is that everyone in America can play good basketball. And although the lesson is familiar, it’s a story we never get tired of hearing.
I’m not sure there has ever been a better first weekend of the NCAA tournament to offer as proof.
You don’t have to go to a brand-name school to play well. You don’t have to be NBA-bound. You don’t have to be on magazine covers.
Mercer. Dayton. Harvard. North Dakota State. Stephen F. Austin.
They were all double-digit seeds who pulled upsets in the round of 64 in this year’s tournament. And unless you are a basketball junkie, you probably couldn’t have named one player on any of those teams.
Nowhere has this lesson been relearned more thoroughly than in Raleigh, where No. 11 seed Tennessee and No. 14 seed Mercer will battle for a Sweet 16 spot at 6:10 p.m. Sunday. The two teams played a year ago in the NIT, in an arena that was 80 percent empty in Knoxville. Mercer won.
“Mercer can be a very scary team if you don’t play defense well,” Tennessee’s Jarnell Stokes said. “If you’re a bad defensive team, Mercer will pick you apart.”
It turned out Duke was a bad defensive team Friday, especially on the interior. Mercer shot 55.6 percent, using its five senior starters to fool the Blue Devils on the pick-and-roll time and again. Mercer whipped Duke in an arena only 20 miles from Duke’s campus, coaxing Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood into a 6-for-24 combined shooting day.
“Mercer is a team that probably should have been in the tournament last year,” said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who graciously visited Mercer’s locker room after the game and gave its team a brief pep talk. “Those kids – they’re not kids, those men – are determined to do something. ... It’s very beautiful to see. I applaud them and applaud the fans for what they’ve done this year.”
Coach K several times called Mercer’s players “men” in his postgame news conference, and he had a point. When Parker went up against Mercer forward Jakob Gollon – a sixth-year senior – it was a 19-year-old matched up against a 24-year-old. When Parker is 24 he will be an NBA star, but on Friday it was Gollon who was the more effective player.
That’s the thing about these mid-major teams. They keep their players. They don’t have to worry about building a transitional team around two new players who likely were one-and-done after this season, as Duke did.
Mercer’s team has been together for so many years that they long ago appointed their own celebratory dancer (Lake Norman High alum Kevin Canevari, a backup point guard whose dance spirals went viral Friday). The Mercer players know each other’s favorite foods and oddest quirks. And they know where each of them like to score on the floor and how to rotate on help defense.
Davidson is always like this, too. But for one terrible turnover, Davidson would have pulled an upset of Marquette last season and quite likely made it to the 2013 Sweet 16 itself.
Something like this happens every March, and it is always entrancing as long as you are not a fan of one of the brand-name teams that gets dethroned.
The first NCAA tournament weekend is for underdogs. The second and third weekends usually become more about the favorites, as the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds tend to assert their dominance.
But this weekend is about the teams you don’t know about and the players who have prepared for years for this moment in nondescript gyms in Macon, Ga., and Fargo, N.D., and Nacogdoches, Texas.
Said Mercer coach Bob Hoffman of his team: “You can conquer anything if you have the belief they do in each other.”
It sounds corny. But for this first wonderful weekend, it has proven to be absolutely true.
Fowler: email@example.com; Twitter: @scott_fowler