When an Atlantic 10 team plays and defeats three teams consecutively in the 300’s in most NCAA men’s basketball computer rankings, their fans generally don’t stand up and beat their chests after the games. Often enough, those wins would get glossed over as games the Atlantic 10 team should win without much consideration. Some might even chastise the team and their coaching staff for scheduling such a weak stretch of games. Most of the time, those are completely reasonable responses, but I wouldn’t agree for the current Duquesne team.
Since I began writing about college basketball almost a decade ago, I’ve tried to determine the best ways to evaluate teams and players in non-competitive situations. This ranges from high school game film of a prospect signed to the club to the PBC Summer Leagues to scrimmages against D-II teams. Two of the last three opponents toe the line between D-I and D-II in terms of quality. Though not good, Stetson stood out ahead of Maryland Eastern Shore and Delaware State, both in the bottom ten of Ken Pomeroy’s rankings. Stetson have enough depth and experience that results against them don’t need to be taken with as large a grain of salt. None, of course, are better than any Atlantic 10 team.
When I evaluate performances against weaker opponents, I look for changes in tendencies and I think we’ve seen a few promising signs. First and most dramatically, Duquesne has passed the ball better. In the last two games, the Dukes have dished out nearly as many assists (39/19.5 Avg) as they did in the first five games combined (41/8.2 Avg). Sure they made fewer baskets early, but their Assists to FGs Made went from 0.38 in the first five to 0.71 over the last two. That’s a dramatic swing. Individuals have stepped up in this department, namely Rene Castro-Caneddy. He posted a double-double with ten assists against Delaware St. In the first five games, he handed out ten combined and in the last three he has nearly as many assists (22) as shots that he’s taken from the floor (24). He’s gone from a shoot first player to a more balanced combo guard that Duquesne desperately needed. Castro-Caneddy isn’t the only one sharing the ball better, just the most dramatic.
Second item change of note might also stand out as the most obvious, but Keith Dambrot has more depth at his disposal. Grad transfer center Chas Brown still needs to shake off some rust, but he appears healthy enough to play a normal amount of minutes. Wide receiver turned wing Kellon Taylor seems to have had enough time in basketball practice to get acclimated to the team’s offense and defense. Eric James and Tarin Smith appear to have shaken off injuries sustained during the season. Even Marko Krivasevic made his season debut after a leg injury somehow spread to his wrist. It doesn’t matter who the opponent is, bodies are bodies. Dambrot has more of the them at his disposal which means he can limit the minutes his top players get, keeping them fresh later in games.
Fatigue may have cost Duquesne one or two games already this season, but it may not factor much moving ahead. A couple of examples, Tydus Voerhoeven played 30 minutes or more in the three game losing streak to Robert Morris, Pitt and Cornell. No big true man has played more than 25 minutes since, as Taylor has been able to spell them in the post. This has also allowed Dambrot to condense his back court, bringing Smith off the bench to rest Castro-Caneddy and moving Eric Williams, Jr. to his more natural small forward position. Williams still played big minutes against Stetson, but Mike Lewis II hasn’t played more than 33 since the Pitt game. The workload looks a little bit more like what Dambrot has historically done successfully at Akron. The question remains if he will continue to trust his bench when the competition toughens up. Truth remains that he still may not have much of a choice.
The first two might both lead into the next observable change in the team in the sense that better team commitment and fresher players lead to a better and more sustainable defensive effort over forty minutes. There aren’t any measurables that I can readily present to support this position that also don’t reflect how bad their opponents have also been. It’s the classic eyeball test and the reader will just need to take my word for it. That said, I can at least provide some examples. Over the last few games, Dambrot has gone to intermittent full court press. He seems to use this as a alternative to his preferred straight man defense and he appears to use it when his team needs a spark defensively. It often lead to greater intensity on the floor and may help the players to focus. There have been breakdowns on defense for sure, but not as many in the hustle areas like players finding their man in transition. Players also have talked more on defense. One advantage to watching games in a near empty arena is that you can hear almost everything said on the court and I hear the players helping their teammates out.
While we’re on the topic of subjective observation, Duquesne also looks more confident. They’re taking better shots with the looks on their faces that they expect them to go in. Amazing what cupcakes will do for your spirits. We hear so much about learning to win. This team is learning to win one type of game, the kind where they’re in control and they keep their foot on the gas to give their opponents no chance. Fans have seen the Dukes falter in so many games like this over the years. Stetson cut it to single digits at one point in the second half and while they didn’t immediately turn it around, Duquesne found a way to stop the bleeding until they could extend the lead again. For Delaware State and Maryland Eastern Shore, they didn’t even get a whiff of hope in the second half. This won’t help them protect leads in tight games nor will it teach them how to come back when they’re down a little or a whole mess of points, but it will help them stay in control.
It’s still a long way to go before we can say these Dukes are a good team, but they defeated bad teams by a wider margin than the computer systems at Kenpom and RPIForecast projected they would. In other words, they’re outperforming the expectations they set for themselves earlier in the season even if it’s against bad teams. They’re also functioning better as a team in terms of sharing the ball, defending and getting healthy. In a transition year like the Dukes find themselves in, the best one can truly hope for is improvement and it appears as if they’re getting better.