Duke's Stunning Upset to Mercer Shows Jabari Parker Isn't Invincible

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Duke's Stunning Upset to Mercer Shows Jabari Parker Isn't Invincible
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Top-three draft pick. NBA All-Star. Contender for MVP. All of that and plenty more seems fairly assured for Jabari Parker as a pro.

But if, as expected, he departs Duke now that the Blue Devils' season has ended with shocking abruptness in a 78-71 loss to 14th-seeded Mercer, there will always be a gaping void in his college log.

This year's best freshman will have created stratospheric expectations only to be one-and-done, not only in college, but also in the NCAA tournament. Instead of a championship ring, he'll leave with reddened eyes.

Parker has been referred to as a freak, but in the most positive sense of the word, because of a 6'8", 235-pound physique that begs for comparisons to when LeBron James was a man-child. But Friday against Mercer, Parker was simply freakishly bad while playing in the biggest game of his budding career.

He was 4-of-14 from the floor, and none of his three three-point attempts found the bottom of the net. He had four turnovers in 28 minutes, while Mercer's entire roster had only eight for the game. He had more goal tends (one) and air balls (one) than assists (zero). 

Chuck Burton/Associated Press

In short, he made his free throws and not much else, and getting into foul trouble just added to the morass as mighty Duke was humbled by merciless Mercer.

Maybe getting ousted by a No. 14 seed is more of a Duke problem than a Parker one. The Blue Devils, after all, were bounced by 15th-seeded Lehigh in 2012 and have failed to reach four of the last eight Sweet 16s.

Charitable assessments also may attribute Parker's setback to the fact that the 19-year-old was facing a senior-laden Mercer team, but that doesn't really wash. Being one of the nation's top three players and getting molded by the consensus best coach in the game is supposed to leave someone of Parker's pedigree immune to being assailed by a crew from the Atlantic Sun conference, isn't it?

Apparently not. Mercer came hunting for big game and scored it during its Jabari safari.

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Parker looked nervous at times, like he was forcing it at others.

A week ago, hardly anyone would have doubted Parker could impose his will on a 14th-seeded opponent and rescue Duke's tournament run. Now everyone knows differently. 

That doesn't mean NBA scouts should shred their evaluations of Parker. But it does leave him as the rare Duke superstar of the Mike Krzyzewski era who won't be able to tell his grandchildren what it felt like to play in a Final Four.

Christian Laettner, Grant Hill and Bobby Hurley could put together a documentary on their Final Four experiences. Shane Battier made it to a pair. J.J. Redick got a taste of one. But not Parker, barring a return to Duke next year, which would be as big of a surprise as Friday's defeat.

Parker cried in the locker room and could barely speak, according to the Chicago Tribune's Teddy Greenstein.

"Incompletion" was how he summarized his mood, according to the Tribune report, and when the topic of his future was broached, he said, “I don’t know what I’m going to do. Don’t know what I’m going to do."

But what would returning do for him? He can't raise his NBA draft status any higher, and with today's parity in college basketball, there's just as big a chance that he'd run into another giant-killer in next year's tournament.

Meantime, Parker still seems like a slightly quicker fit for NBA stardom than his two rivals for the No. 1 pick honor, Kansas' 7-foot Joel Embiid and his Jayhawks teammate, Andrew Wiggins.

And it's doubtful that Friday's disappointment will make Krzyzewski back off an NBA prediction he made about Parker, per Greenstein: "He'll be a 25-point-per-game scorer, I think. In three, four, five years, I think Jabari will be a franchise player."

But Krzyzewski also readily conceded that Parker is "a long way from that and still developing."

Gerry Broome/Associated Press

That was a theme for Krzyzewski at his press conference after Thursday's loss.

Referencing Duke as an "unconventional" team this year, Krzyzewski told reporters the Blue Devils had an inside presence only when Parker was strong there, "But that's not really what he does. That's not his strength."

That was made apparent with the way Mercer's Jakob Gollon maneuvered Parker, even though the 6'6", 200-pound senior forward had a size disadvantage.

Said Krzyzewski of how Gollon handled Parker:

I thought what they were doing offensively, he had a tough matchup with Gollon. ...As a sixth‑year guy, he has a spirit and a will and movement like he's-- I thought he played a great game and moved Jabari around a lot. And when you do that, you can get beaten. You can get beaten, and we did.

And so, Parker had to pack up and head home after his one and only NCAA tournament appearance and take some unwanted and unforeseen baggage with him.

Tom Weir covered 15 Final Fours as a columnist and reporter for USA Today.

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