How Duke Advances in the Bracket of DeathPosted by Chris Kehoe on March 21st, 2014
Upon first glance, Duke had to be happy about not landing out West in Arizona’s bracket, where Duke has traditionally struggled to win. But after that initial glance, Duke found themselves in what pundits have dubbed the ‘Bracket of Death’ along with underseeded Louisville, undefeated Wichita State, and Big Ten champions Michigan. Duke will have their work cut out for them in this bracket, with three teams who were in last year’s Final Four in the same region. But Duke shouldn’t look past their first round opponent, the Mercer Bears, champions of the Atlantic Sun, who knocked off last year’s darling Florida Gulf Coast in their conference championship. Mercer is an extremely capable offensive force this year, not on the level that Duke is, but still extremely capable in their own right. While only ranked 111th in tempo-free offense, Mercer has great rankings in traditional statistics compared to the rest of the nation. The Bears are 25th in team PPG, 38th in RPG, 10th in APG, and 29th in FG% in the entire nation.
- KenPom projection: Duke 79, Mercer 67 (Duke 88%, Mercer 12%)
- FiveThirtyEight.com projection: Duke 92.9%, Mercer 7.1%
This promises to be an exciting offensive shootout in Raleigh, where Duke has an obvious home court advantage of playing in their state and in an area they know quite well. Both Duke and Mercer struggle defensively, so points will likely be at a premium in their matchup. Both are extremely capable three point shooting teams, and they take advantage of that strength by letting it fly early and often. While the star power on Duke is known to almost everyone, Mercer has a stud of their own in senior guard Langston Hall. He is one half of a terrific backcourt with Anthony White, but what separates Mercer from traditional small schools is their size. Most successful small schools have elite guard play as there is a large pool of smaller and talented players with guard skills to recruit from nationwide. What often separates the big-time schools from these mid-major schools is the presence of star big men, or at least serviceable size upwards of 6’9” on their rosters. And Mercer has some big bodies on its roster, which may prove difficult for Duke to counter, as size and defense tends to be their Achilles heel.
Playing 6’8” Jabari Parker often at the four and sometimes as a center, Duke doesn’t have an abundance of frontcourt players, and while Amile Jefferson starts at center, he is 6’9” and extremely skinny. Marshall Plumlee coming off the bench, a true seven-footer, doesn’t play consistent enough minutes at the moment to be relied upon as a balancing force to other teams’ size. Meanwhile Mercer sports 6’10” senior Daniel Coursey and bring a 6’11”, 250 pound Monty Brown off the bench, which could throw Duke’s defensive matchups out of whack. But on the other side of that, these guys would have to match up with Duke’s speedier forward-centric lineups and chase them on the perimeter and in transition. This is a matchup worth exploring as Mercer may try to pound Duke in the paint, a weakness of theirs, or stick with a smaller lineup to try and hang with Duke’s run and gun style of play centered around Parker and sophomore Rodney Hood.
While the projections above come from extremely successful systems and algorithms that have withstood a relative test of time, Duke may be more at risk than is assumed by the percentages. Mercer is no slouch and Duke has lost worse games this year, notably to Wake Forest and Notre Dame, and almost lost a squeaker at home to Vermont. While Mercer hasn’t played a team like Duke all season long, few have, they have played some high-major teams so they have a good idea what to expect. Losing a close one to tournament team Texas in their opener and a less-close game to #5 Oklahoma gives Mercer a good idea what type of size and pace to expect in this game with Duke. Beating Dunk City shows they are not to be underestimated and Duke will need to hit shots and lock down Hall and Coursey to survive and advance. Duke certainly should win, as their talent far outstrips Mercer, but they have shown before that nothing is a given with this team.