On second thought, it appears that the noise about Duke’s Raleigh homecourt advantage for their Midwest Regional Final against Mercer was overstated.
Friday’s loss to 14th seeded Mercer marked the second time in three years Duke was set up with comfy digs within the confines of their home state. Two years ago, the Tournament Selection Committee dropped the 15th- seeded Lehigh Mountain Hawks into the cauldron as Duke’s first round opponent err... punching bags in Greensboro.
Instead, the Blue Devils treated Lehigh like a Tempurpedic mattress and slept on C.J. McCollum doing a better impression of Steph Curry than Duke’s Seth Curry could.
Norfolk also beat the West Region’s second seeded Missouri Tigers on March 16, but the date is most significant in hoops lore because it was the night Duke’s mystique came crashing down from its lofty perch, introducing the world to college basketball’s new reality. The meek had finally inherited the earth.
Lehigh and McCollum were a perfect pairing. Lehigh had never won an NCAA Tournament game and its students largely didn’t care because it was an institution known for academic prestige.
Like most late bloomers, McCollum was lightly recruited before a series of growth spurts brought the lanky guard to Lehigh as a 6-3, 165 pound toothpick. In a simpler time, Duke would have trotted out a lineup including Kyrie Irving to matchup with McCollum. It may have been enough to put them over the top. However, the one-and-done guard’s early departure created a soft spot for Duke, which Lehigh capitalized on.
McCollum’s 30 point explosion didn’t materialize out of thin air either. McCollum was already gaining steam on NBA Draft boards after being named Patriot League Player of the Year as a sophomore.
Former McDonalds All-American Austin Rivers performed admirably for a freshman, but Mike Krzyzewski conceded after the loss that McCollum was the best player on the floor.
As Duke misfired on 20-of-26 three-pointers, McCollum was cannonballing treys off the dribble from every spot on the floor while Duke collected H-O-R-S and the dagger E from the Lehigh guard.
McCollum’s virtuoso exhibition of offensive versatility sealed the deal; however, transition baskets are where Lehigh countered the Plumlee brothers patrolling the post. A fast break opportunity also resulted in Lehigh forward John Adams dribbling through the Duke defense to flush a two-handed jam to give Lehigh its largest lead of the night with under two minutes remaining in regulation.
The toe tag was applied when inbounder B.J. Bailey uncorked a baseball pass to forward Gabe Knutson as he broke off towards the basket unnoticed. Lehigh’s 16th ranked transition defense outscored Duke 19-4 as they flew up and down the court for easy baskets while Duke labored for their points. Lehigh’s day in the sun was a low moment in Duke’s illustrious basketball history.
Another glaring similarity between the losses to Mercer and Lehigh was the indictment of Duke’s finesse perimeter-obsessed offense which has lost the free throw battle in both upsets for the sake of catapulting long range treys. The thud and deafening roar emitting from the mushroom cloud over a Duke tournament upset is louder than when any other program or franchise in any sport gets humbled.
Psychologically, Duke upsets are equivalent to peering down at Muhammad Ali staring down at Cleveland Williams in a perpetual loop.
No entity represents "the bigger they are, the louder they fall" maxim like Duke. After defeating Duke, the friend of a Lehigh alumnus piled on by recording a Duke diss track which poured salt onto the wound by referring to Duke as a safety school. These days Duke finds itself dusting off their shoulders after getting knocked down a little more than they should, but Lehigh created the loudest shockwave yet.