NCAA TOURNEY: Duke to face Mercer at PNC Arena Friday

Mar. 16, 2014 @ 09:30 PM

Duke’s 19th consecutive appearance in the NCAA Tournament will begin with the Blue Devils not having to travel outside the 919 area code.

Duke received the No. 3 seed in the Midwest Region Sunday night and will play 14th-seeded Mercer at PNC Arena in Raleigh this Friday (12:15 p.m., WRAL) .

The Blue Devils (26-8) learned their NCAA Tournament fate less than three hours after dropping the ACC Tournament championship game to Virginia, 72-63, at Greensboro Coliseum.

Duke and Virginia are among six ACC schools in the NCAA Tournament’s 68-team field, joining North Carolina, Syracuse, Pittsburgh and N.C. State.

“This what you play for all year long,” Duke associate coach Jeff Capel said, “to have an opportunity to play in this tournament.”

Winner of four NCAA Tournament championships since 1991, Duke hasn’t missed the tournament field since the 1995-96 season.

The Blue Devils have had great success playing NCAA Tournament games in North Carolina as a whole and Raleigh in particular. Duke is 32-5 in NCAA Tournament games in North Carolina, including 6-1 in Raleigh.

The Blue Devils are joined in the Midwest Region this year by top-seeded Wichita State (34-0), No. 2 seed Michigan (25-8) and No. 4 seed and reigning national champion Louisville (32-5). Duke lost to Louisville in last year’s Midwest Regional final at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

The Midwest Regional returns to that arena this season, but Duke has to get past Mercer and either Massachusetts, Iowa or Tennessee on Sunday to earn a trip back to Indianapolis.

Mercer (26-8) earned its bid to the NCAA Tournament by winning the Atlantic Sun Conference tournament. The Bears defeated Florida Gulf Coast, a surprise NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 team last season, 68-60 in the conference tournament final on March 9.

“I know they start five seniors and they have the conference player of the year,” Capel said. “I know they are a well-coached team.”

While sad about losing the ACC Tournament final earlier Sunday, the Blue Devils know this is the tournament they’ve worked and prepared for all season.

“It’s a new season,” Duke sophomore forward Rodney Hood said. “I think we’re in good shape. We’ve got to keep our heads up and get ready. There’s no time for pity parties. We’ve got to get ready.”

The tournament is extra special for Hood, who played his freshman year at Mississippi State in 2011-12 before transferring to Duke and sitting out last season per NCAA rules. Friday will be his first NCAA Tournament game.

“I’m ready to get to the NCAA Tournament,” Hood said. “It’s the first time since I’ve been in college. It’s one of the reasons why I came here.”

Duke played 12 games against teams in this year’s tournament field, going 7-5. The Blue Devils are 4-4 against teams with seeds of No.4 or better in this year’s tournament.

That strenuous schedule was designed to prepare Duke for the NCAA Tournament. While the Blue Devils enter this year’s tournament with more losses than in any season since the 2006-07 campaign, they are confident they are ready for the big test.

“We can take some very good things going into the tournament,” Sulaimon said. “I know when the lights are on, when we’re facing elimination, we are going to make those plays the second time around.”