Of course 14th-seeded Mercer beat 3rd-seeded Duke on Friday afternoon, 78-71, during the first round of this year’s NCAA tournament. The Bears, you see, are a college basketball team. As in, the players stay in college, and play basketball. Mercer, located in Macon, Ga., has five senior starters. Duke has one senior, three sophomores, and a one-and-done freshman in the starting lineup. The Blue Devils, at this point, are just another basketball factory, where insanely-hyped stars buy time, before buying much more with their NBA paychecks.
In 2011, Kyrie Irving left Duke after an injury-plagued freshman season. In 2012, Austin Rivers—son of Doc, the Clippers coach—was one-and-done. And now Jabari Parker, a bona-fide NBA star prospect, likely just played his final college game, despite some whispers he may stay one more season. He’ll beat the Knicks next year. But he lost to Mercer.
For Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, there’s another problem with this NBA assembly line model. He hasn’t proven he can run it very well. Krzyzewski, you are no John Calipari.
Lehigh bounced Coach K out of the tournament two years ago, and now Mercer busted the bracket. This isn’t a way a Hall-of-Famer ends his legendary career. Krzyzewski is 67, and won’t leave the college sideline. He’s still got the Olympics gig—he’s coaching through Rio, in 2016. John Wooden won a title in his final year. Krzyzewski won’t leave the game as the guy who loses to the Lehighs and Mercers.
Here’s a fair question: is Coach K too stretched? Are the Olympics, and World Championships, and Team USA camps distracting him from his Duke day job? Probably not. After all, Duke did win the 2010 national title—are we positive Gordon Hayward’s heave didn’t fall?—after Coach K won his first gold medal, in Beijing. They’ve been a fine regular season team.
For the tournament, however, he’s the wrong coach for the wrong era. In a win-or-go-home scenario, who do you want on the court? The heavily-recruited freshman and sophomores, cobbled together, or the upperclassmen with telepathic tendencies that can only come with time. My eyes move this way: boom, you know where to go. The Mercers, the Butler teams that made the Final Four—they have this rare basketball gift.
The Mercer win says even more about coaching. Mercer’s Bob Hoffman coached the pants of Krzyzewski. Down the stretch, he made chess moves on defense that gave Duke shooters fits. Mike Krzyzewski is a Hall-of-Famer, winner of four national titles, two gold medals, and pulling in $7 million a year, at least. Hoffman is well, a guy named Bob Hoffman, not making nearly as much. The best basketball coaches are often the ones who make the least. They’re scattered across the country, in high schools, junior colleges, Division III institutions. If Coach K has humility, and I think he does, he’d be the first to admit: “Big-name” coaches, like himself, are most often ridiculously overrated, and overpaid.
For the Duke haters, today is more manna: enjoy. (I’m not among them. Not a rabid fan or anything, but I admire the winning, respect Coach K’s accomplishments, and really like some of players who have come out of the program. Forget Christian Laettner. Don’t forget Grant Hill, or Bobby Hurley, or Shane Battier or Jay Williams). But instead of celebrating Duke’s loss, let’s go nutso over Mercer’s win. Yes, a 2014 Cinderella is locked in. Maybe Mercer is another Florida Gulf Coast—the Bears play in the same conference as those darlings of Dunk City, the Atlantic Sun. The players did goofy dances afterwards, just like Florida Gulf Coast. “I don’t know who’s beating us?!” a delirious Hoffman screamed afterwards.
Good luck to anyone trying. You’ll need it. Because Mercer is today’s March Madness.
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