(Updated: ADDS TV RECASTS sentence 4 in lead to add Duke reaching 18 straight tournaments)
Duke begins its quest for a fifth NCAA tournament title Friday when it meets Mercer in the Midwest Regional in Raleigh, N.C. While the third-seeded Blue Devils aren't expected to have trouble with the 14th-seeded and Atlantic Sun Conference champion Bears, they landed in what appears the toughest region in the tournament. Undefeated Wichita State and Michigan own the top two seeds while Louisville, the defending NCAA tournament champion, is a surprising fourth seed.
Duke, which has reached 18 straight NCAA tournaments and 38 overall while reaching the Final Four 15 times, lost to Virginia - the No. 1 seed in the East Regional - 72-63 in Sunday's ACC tournament final. Mercer, located in Macon, Ga., makes its third tournament appearance and first since 1985 after a 68-60 victory at Florida Gulf Coast - last year's Sweet 16 Cinderella team - in the Atlantic Sun final March 9. The Bears split four games against major conference teams this season, losing to Texas and Oklahoma while defeating Seton Hall and Mississippi.
TV: 12:15 p.m. ET, CBS
ABOUT MERCER (26-8): The Bears exacted revenge from last year's 88-75 loss to Florida Gulf Coast in the Atlantic Sun final behind senior guard Langston Hall, who scored 15 points and averages a team-best 14.7 points - the only player to average double figures. "It really hurt last year," senior forward Jakob Gollon told reporters after recording 12 points and six rebounds. "We thought last year was our year. ... But we knew that coming back in here and cutting these (nets) down might be a good last chapter to the story that we've written thus far." Senior guard Anthony White Jr. (8.3 points per game) adds to a potent 1-2 punch in the backcourt.
ABOUT DUKE (26-8): With a player the caliber of freshman Jabari Parker (19.2 points, 8.8 rebounds), the Blue Devils are capable of outperforming their seed. Sophomore forward Rodney Hood (16.5 points) did not play in last season's tournament after transferring from Mississippi State and sitting out the sesaon, so he is also without NCAA experience. Junior guard Quinn Cook (11.5 points, 4.3 assists) runs the show on the floor and averaged 5.8 points and six assists in last season's NCAA tournament.
1. The Blue Devils lost twice in their NCAA tournament opener in the last seven years - 75-70 to Lehigh in 2012 and 79-77 to Virginia Commonwealth in 2007.
2. Duke, which is 99-33 in the NCAA tournament, reached the 2013 Elite Eight before losing to Louisville 85-63.
3. The winner advances to Sunday's third round against No. 6 Massachusetts or the winner of Wednesday's First Four game between Iowa and Tennessee.
PREDICTION: Duke 80, Mercer 52