X-Factors to Watch for in Duke vs. Mercer NCAA Tournament Matchup

Doug Brodess@DougbrodessCorrespondent IMarch 19, 2014

X-Factors to Watch for in Duke vs. Mercer NCAA Tournament Matchup

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    Very few people are expecting the second-round game between 3-seed Duke and 14-seed Mercer to be much of a contest.

    But, in the back of our minds, most of us remember just a few years ago when the Blue Devils faced Lehigh in the first game of the 2012 NCAA tournament. The Mountain Hawks pulled off an historic upset (ESPN.com), beating Duke 75-70.

    The result of Duke vs. Mercer may come down to some unanticipated causes.

    Let's look at the X-factors to watch for as the Blue Devils and Bears face off.


    Unless otherwise noted, all advanced stats via Kenpom.com

Blue Devils' X-Factor No. 3: Cook's Role as a Scorer

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    Junior guard Quinn Cook is having a solid statistical season, scoring 11.3 points and handing out 4.4 assists per game.

    He has moved in and out of the starting lineup this year. More recently, he is coming off the bench.

    Regardless of whether or not he starts, Duke relies on Cook to be more than a playmaker. The Blue Devils also need him to be a consistent scorer.

    It is that single wordconsistentthat will determine how much playing time he will see as March Madness begins.

    In the last 10 games, Cook has scored in double figures only three times.

    While the Blue Devils do not lack for offensive firepower, they need more reliable scorers than just Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood.

    Cook has proven that he can be a reliable scorer. The question is: Will he?

Bears' X-Factor No. 2: Thomas' Ability to Knock Down Threes

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    Senior forward Bud Thomas is a versatile player who can score from all over the court.

    The fact that he can step out and hit shots from beyond the arc has created some matchup problems this season.

    He is shooting 39.1 percent from distance in 2013-14. That is very good for a player that will most likely be guarded by whomever is playing the 4 for the Blue Devils.

    Thomas has hit five three-pointers or more in six different games this year.

    If Duke doesn't keep tabs on him, he will be ready to launch a barrage of bombs.


Blue Devils' X-Factor No. 2: Plumlee's Play in the Paint

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    In the last month, Duke sophomore Marshall Plumlee has been logging more consistent minutes off the bench. 

    When he is in the ballgame, MP3 gives the Blue Devils' lineup a different dimension.

    Even though he has only scored 17 points in the last eight games, the seven-footer has given Duke a much stronger interior presence.

    Plumlee understands his role, knowing that protecting the basket, clogging the lane and crashing the boards are his biggest contributions on this year's roster.

    Because Mercer likes to spread things out and roll players to the rim, Plumlee will play a pivotal role in this second-round action.


Bears' X-Factor No. 1: Challenging Beyond-the-Arc Shots

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    Everyone who has watched Duke play in recent years knows that the Blue Devils like to shoot the three-ball.

    During the 2013-14 season, the Blue Devils have scored 33.8 percent of their points from beyond the arc (No. 28 in the nation).

    This is an intentional part of their strategy and success.

    It will be interesting to watch how Mercer is able to restrict Duke's three-point accuracy in Friday's game.

    The Bears rely on tough, man-to-man defense that applies pressure out to and beyond the arc.

    They have been successful at holding their opponents this year to 30.5 percent shooting from downtown.

    If Mercer is successful at holding Duke below their usual long-range accuracy, things could get interesting in Raleigh.

Blue Devils' X-Factor No. 1: Three-Point Defense

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    Duke is a good three-point shooting team, but not everyone knows that they also do a good job of defending the three.

    Just like Mercer, Coach K's crew has been successful in stifling their opponents' three-point shooting efforts.

    On the year, the Blue Devils are holding the teams that they have played to 30.5 percent shooting from beyond the arc. This is the exact same percentage as the Bears have for three-point defense.

    However, in seven of Duke's eight losses this season, their opponents have shot 35 percent or better from distance.

    Mercer is a good three-point shooting team. If they can get in a rhythm, they can be dangerous and cause the Blue Devils problems. 


Bottom Line

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    Because of the Lehigh debacle from a few years ago, do not count on the Blue Devils taking this game lightly.

    Even though many of the current Duke players did not play or did not play significant roles in that game, the memory lingers.

    Duke will bounce back from their loss to Virginia in the ACC Finals.

    Prediction: Blue Devils will beat Mercer by at least 20 points.