Column: Mercers of the world deserve more respect
As we watch one so-called favorite after another fall in the NCAA tournament, it’s not really accurate to call them upsets anymore.
Showing just how little the names on the front of the jerseys matter these days, Mercer turned storied Duke into one-and-done on Friday afternoon. And before the night was done, 12th-seeded Stephen F. Austin took out VCU.
Nothing fluky about these games.
Especially what we saw out of Mercer, a small, private school from Middle Georgia that was simply the better team against Coach K and his blue bloods from Durham, both on the court and with their postgame moves. Seriously, if ”Dancing With The Stars” doesn’t give a shout to Mercer’s Kevin Canevari after his killer rendition of the Nae Nae, there’s no justice in this world.
For now, let’s focus on another kind of justice.
It’s time for the selection committee to get with the times, to recognize how much the college basketball landscape has changed in the past decade or so. In this era of here-today, gone-tomorrow stars at so many of the high-profile schools, the out-of-touch group that decides who gets an invite to its 68-team party is leaving a LOT of deserving teams on the sideline. Believe us when we say, there’s a lot more Mercers and Stephen F. Austins out there, not to mention Harvards and North Dakota States, both winners on Thursday.
Let’s take a closer look at Mercer.
The Bears actually won the Atlantic Sun Conference a year ago, but were upset in the final of their league tournament by Florida Gulf Coast. Everyone knows the rest of the story. Mercer was sent packing to the NIT, while Dunk City got the A-Sun’s automatic bid and went on to become the darlings of last year’s NCAAs with their thoroughly entertaining run to the Sweet 16.
This year, Mercer and Florida Gulf Coast tied for the conference title with matching 14-4 records, but it was the Bears getting payback in the A-Sun tournament by knocking off the Eagles on their home court. While Florida Gulf Coast settled for the NIT consolation prize, Mercer and its five senior starters claimed their first NCAA berth since 1985.
It’s obvious they were both worthy of invitations to the Big Dance.
This year and last.
”There was no doubt in my mind that we were going to be there and have an opportunity” to beat Duke, Mercer coach Bob Hoffman said. ”Everybody was calling us underdogs. I told them before we ran out, `Let’s be super dogs.”’
The NCAA could possibly take a step in the right direction by eliminating the automatic qualifiers, to give the committee more discretion in assembling the most-deserving field. But more than that, there needs to be a change in attitude, to acknowledge they play some pretty good hoops in conferences such as the Sun Belt, where Georgia State went 17-1 in conference play, lost in overtime to Louisiana-Lafayette in the final of its league tournament, and was probably never even considered for a spot in the NCAAs.
Frankly, we would’ve taken both Georgia State and Florida Gulf Coast over schools such as the seventh-place team from the Big 12 or the sixth-place squad from the Atlantic Coast Conference – especially after watching Lafayette give third-seeded Creighton a scare on Friday.
On the first full day of the tournament, Harvard and North Dakota State pretty much wiped out everyone’s brackets by beating Cincinnati and Oklahoma, respectively. Dayton surprised a lot of folks, too, with a one-point squeaker over their snooty neighbors at Ohio State – you know, from the mighty Big Ten.
But, seriously folks, the guys at these lesser-known schools are pretty good.
Maybe not quite as talented and deep as the teams they’re beating, but they make up for it with seasoning and cohesion that can’t be measured by the RPI. Plus, they tend to play with a chip on their shoulders, having been passed over by the big boys during recruiting and eager to show they would’ve fared just fine in a prestigious league such as the ACC.
Count Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski among the converts.
”They’re not just experienced,” he said of Mercer, the only team in the NCAA field that has started five seniors all season. ”They’re good.”
That was quite a change from Krzyzewski’s less-than-flattering assessment of another league that most people rank a notch behind the power conferences but ahead of leagues such as the Atlantic Sun.
Last weekend during the ACC tournament, Krzyzewski insisted the Atlantic 10 wasn’t deserving of six schools in the NCAA field.
”Come on,” he said dismissively. ”I mean, they’re good, but put them in our conference and go through the meat grinder that our conference has to go through.”
Turns out, the selection committee got that one right. Dayton advanced. Saint Louis knocked off North Carolina State – of the ACC, no less – in overtime. Saint Joseph gave UConn all it could handle before falling in OT. If Coach K wants to keep arguing that not all those A-10 teams were deserving, he’ll have plenty of time to do it now.
His season is over.
Not so for Mercer and Stephen F. Austin and Harvard and North Dakota State.
They’ll be playing on the weekend.
If there’s any justice, more teams just like them will get their shot next year.
Paul Newberry is a national writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963