As the seconds ticked away on Duke's season on Friday in Mercer's 78-71 win, this almost seemed like an inevitable ending. Maybe a little sooner than we expected, but it was coming.
From November to Friday, Mike Krzyzewski had been winning with smoke and mirrors, Jabari and threes, figuring out different ways to hide the flaws of his roster.
But in a moment of reflection weeks ago at a press conference before the first attempt at playing North Carolina in Chapel Hill, Krzyzewski just about called Mercer's shot.
"We don't have a lot of depth in the frontcourt. We're not as big and strong a team, and we have to shoot well to win," Krzyzewski said. "We have to shoot really well. There's just more opportunities to lose with this team, and when you're coaching, you'd like to reduce the number of ways you can lose."
What happened on Friday?
Duke shot 37 of its 62 attempts from deep, and Mercer hammered the ball inside, outscoring Duke 26-10 in the paint and 23-12 at the free-throw line.
Coach K, the prophet?
"With (Mason) Plumlee, (Ryan) Kelly and (Seth) Curry, I thought we'd have a chance to win the whole thing just because they're seniors and they're really good," Krzyzewski said weeks ago. "And even though we got hurt, we had a chance. We got to the Elite Eight. With our group this year, they don't have an accomplishment background. Who is Rodney Hood going to be? What are the things Jabari (Parker) is going to have to go through? Who will be able to help him on the court go through all those things?"
The answer: still searching.
Parker scored the least-impactful 14 points of his freshman season, knocking down only 4-of-14 shots. Hood scored a season-low six points on six shots. The next bucket for both could be in the NBA.
Twice in the last three years, Coach K has made a one-and-done freshman his go-to guy. First, it was Austin Rivers who led Duke right into a loss against 15th-seeded Lehigh in 2012, and now the final chapter of Parker's Duke career will likely be this performance.
The loss could be pinned on the stars. But do we expect too much from a freshman?
Parker was at his best this season when he was playing from the blocks. In his bad games, he would float to the perimeter and settle, as he did against Mercer.
In those times, as Coach K suggested, he needed someone to lead him and guide him to his scoring spots. He also could have used a real big man next to him.
Krzyzewski has always loved for his Blue Devils to shoot threes and pressure the basketball. Those have been staples. But with his best teams, they've also had legitimate big men.
From Danny Ferry to Christian Laettner to Elton Brand to Carlos Boozer to the Plumlee brothers.
Size has always mattered. And this team didn't have it.
It's on the way next year when 6'11" Jahlil Okafor, the consensus best player in the 2014 class, arrives in Durham.
Krzyzewski will be able to play a much more traditional lineup. But with another freshman, Tyus Jones, possibly running the team at point guard, will the "accomplishment" background still be missing?
Mercer had that. The Bears finished first last year in the Atlantic Sun and tied for first this year. They had seven seniors who had experienced pain—getting upset by Florida Gulf Coast and watching them go on a run—and were driven by that failure.
Will Quinn Cook and Rasheed Sulaimon use the pain from Friday's loss to motivate and lead the next group? Or will the guys prepared to lead be off to the NBA?
C.J. Moore (@CJMooreBR) covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.
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