Saturday, March 22
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski and his future NBA stars were scrambling to keep up against a collection of players who were never recruited by the Blue Devils or any other powerhouse program.
The Mercer Bears had four years to build the chemistry, toughness and cohesion to go toe-to-toe with tradition-rich Duke and teenage star Jabari Parker.
Jakob Gollon, 24, and his fellow Mercer seniors may never play in the NBA, but they weren't going to be intimidated by 19-year-old kids, no matter what it said on the front of their jersey.
"We're playing against grown men," Krzyzewski said at halftime.
In the pressure cooker that is the NCAA tournament, the playing field between the star-studded power programs featuring the latest one-and-done sensations and the small schools that nurture a group for four years has never been more level.
Just ask Parker, who probably played his last college game Friday as Duke lost to Mercer 78-71. Or Oklahoma State super sophomore Marcus Smart, who was bounced by Gonzaga. Or Kentucky coach John Calipari, who has made a living recruiting players who were sure to leave Lexington quickly.
It worked two years ago, when the Wildcats won the national title. But the results have been more mixed since, with an NIT appearance last year and a modest No. 8 seed in this tournament.
"You know, it's very difficult coaching young players," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. "It's very easy coaching older players. It was very easy coaching my team last year, and it's a lot more difficult coaching this team than it was last year, even though we do have some veterans.
"But when you've got five and seven seniors, they know what to do in situations. You don't have to call timeouts. They know what to do. They know how to play the situation. They've been there before. Fundamentally they're as sound as can be."
Teams like Mercer, which starts five seniors and plays two more off the bench, North Dakota State and Harvard have relied on experience, chemistry and cohesion gained by spending years together to overcome the talent deficiencies.
"It's night and day," said former NBA player and current NBATV analyst Sam Mitchell, a proud Mercer alum. "You're talking about a kid one year removed from high school compared to a 22-year-old man that's been in college for four years and on his own and experiencing things and has played three more years of basketball. That's huge. You're talking about almost 100 games more than what the other guys have played and that's a huge, huge advantage."
According to a study done by the website statsheet.com, Mercer was the fourth-most experienced team in the country, with its players averaging 3.52 years of experience. Eastern Kentucky, the No. 15 seed that scared second-seeded Kansas on Friday, was tied for fifth at 3.49 and Saint Louis, which overcame a 14-point deficit with five minutes to play to beat N.C. State on Thursday, was 10th with 3.46.
Meanwhile, Kentucky was the least experienced team in the country according the study, with its players averaging a mere 1.35 years. Those Jayhawks with future lottery picks Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid? They were the fifth lowest with 1.72 years per player.
North Dakota State starts three seniors and the star of Thursday night's win over fifth-seeded Oklahoma, Lawrence Alexander, is a junior.
"I've spent three years now with Lawrence," NDSU forward Taylor Braun said, "four or five years with other guys on the team, and that time really helps us come together as a group and it definitely showed last night with the performance and how everything played out."
It's a fine line that the coaches at high-profile schools have to walk. They can recruit the most talented prep players in the country, but as soon as the bolt for the NBA, it leaves a team with little depth and experience.
Calipari has been unapologetic in his approach, but he spoke often this season about having to teach another heavily hyped class the very basics of basketball, running drills that players usually do in junior high.
"I couldn't do what John does," said Michigan State's Tom Izzo, one of the coaches who has had success blending highly recruited players into a roster that often stays intact for years at a time. "That doesn't make it right or wrong, but I think you've got to have some high quality players if you're going to be successful, too."
Of course, the big-name recruits have a long history of paying off. Carmelo Anthony won a national title in his only season at Syracuse. Derrick Rose took Calipari and Memphis to the national title game. And Michigan was the youngest team in the field last year, but made it to the title game.
But when the game comes down to a matchup of men against boys, anything can happen.
"You get these Mercers and the Manhattan Colleges and the Ionas who have all those seniors, they can beat you on a given night," said Pitino, whose Cardinals held off the Jaspers on Thursday night. "Duke is a very young basketball team, so it wasn't a surprise. But that's the way it is. That's what makes March Madness the greatest month in sports."
AP Sports Writers Eddie Pells and Tim Booth in Spokane, Wash., Jay Cohen in Milwaukee, Mark Long and Fred Goodall in Orlando, Fla., and Joedy McCreary in Raleigh, N.C. contributed to this story.