There is rarely a better time of the year than the offseason for Duquesne men’s basketball faithful, one of the saddest and truest realizations I’ve had in the fifteen plus years I’ve followed the program. While there are certainly expectations, like Aaron Jackson taking over the team in March of his senior year, the Dukes playing Xavier for sole possession of first place in the second half of conference season and even last year’s team getting off the best start in my lifetime, even the best of times have ended in disappointment.
After that, the offseason comes and the record resets itself to 0-0. There are freshmen and transfers to dream on. There should be a mural in the AJ Palumbo Center that permanently reads, “Don’t worry, the incoming class will save the program.” We get a first taste of them at summer league and the deal is sealed and we’re sold on what’s to come for one more year.
Don’t get me wrong, we’ve been treated to some excellent players on The Bluff, but never the complete package to get them over the hump. Danny Nee had marginal talent but played an archaic system that he only recruited one player, Martin Osamani, who made any sense in it. Ron Everhart managed to get some top end players, but supplemented them with D-II talent, particularly inside. Jim Ferry has secured lots of decent to good players but the timing hasn’t always worked out. In the beginning he had a veteran post player in Ovie Soko, with inexperience everywhere else. Then, he had some experience at guard and none down low. Last year was the first where he had any kind of mix, and though they were disappointing given the decent start, the results still marked a clear improvement.
I didn’t expect the cycle of offseason optimism to repeat itself after the Dukes lost five of their seven most important players from last year’s team. I expected the Dukes to tank this season, but here I am, gleeful. It’s not even just about the grad transfers who will no question offset some of those departures or the incoming questions. It’s about what’s coming back and what will be around for the next couple of years.
The key to why I’m excited is that Ferry’s system seems to be quite personnel driven and I think he’s collected the right pieces to finally take the program to another level. Here’s what I’ve gleaned from his comments over the years of the types of players he needs to make his system work.
“We have more depth, which will allow us to play faster on offense and play harder on defense.”
– Duquesne Duke, November 2014
Year over year, Ferry’s bench has gotten deeper. Last season, they had plenty of depth to go around at every position except guard, even after the loss of Jeremiah Jones. This season, the Dukes should solve that problem. Emile Blackmon and Tarin Smith appear to have the starting spots locked down. Josh Steel showed surprising polish as a freshman from a country where basketball generally isn’t in the public consciousness. Playing basketball in England is similar to taking up soccer in the U.S. He should give them one solid option at either guard position. Rene Castro disappointed last season, but was up to his old self in in his 2016 Pro-Am debut scoring 23 points on only 11 shots. If both fail, the Dukes should have options in freshmen Mike Lewis and Spencer Littleson.
“There’s a reason the coaches picked us to finish last. We had no ball-handling in this program. I was the best ball-handler. And I’m a shooter.”
– Trib Live -March 9, 2013
I don’t know if the Dukes have a true point guard on the roster save for Lewis, but they have a number, including freshman big Isiah Mike and grad transfer Kale Abrahamson, who can handle the ball. I think it’s safe to say Ferry’s no longer the best ball handler.
Complete Power Forward
“He’s one of these forwards that can control the basketball game because of his passing ability and the way he sees the floor and keeps everyone involved. And then he’s got that ability to score the ball inside and out.”
– Ferry on Halil Kanacevic, Post – Gazette 1/14/14
You haven’t had to watch too much Duquesne basketball to realize that Jim Ferry likes his offense to flow through the four. The power forward touches the ball on nearly every possession, often to start the offensive set. You don’t have to listen long when the Dukes encounter an versatile four for Ferry to gush. Ty’Sean Powell and Domonique McKoy were effective inside and not out. LG Gill was effective outside and not in. Isaiah Watkins was derailed before his career even began. He’s only had one guy in his tenure who could do it all in Ovie Soko, but he might have two in Abrahamson and Mike this year.
It took Ferry eight years to reach the NCAA tournament at LIU. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that he got there on the back of his first truly dominant NEC power forward in Julian Boyd. While Abrahamson hasn’t had the success many expected of him when he signed with Northwestern out of high school, he has untapped breakout potential that could make him a steal for the Dukes this year. I haven’t seen too many tweets about Mike since committing to Duquesne where “steal” or “beast” weren’t used to describe him. Ferry may have finally found Duquesne’s version of Boyd.
Free Throw Attempts / Attacking the Rim
“We want to make more free throws than our opponent takes.”
– Numerous sources, various times.
The above has been among the most trite Ferryisms along with “we have to get better everyday” or “we’re building this program from scratch / the right way.” To this point, it’s been more about lip service than it has been realized in practice. In fact, their opponents reached the free throw line on average four more times than the Dukes did last year. Part of the problem was that the Dukes were a perimeter focused unit, which naturally comes from having one of the best all-time three point shooters on your team in Micah Mason and a distributor in Derrick Colter who earned most of his assists off jumpers. Tarin Smith, Abrahamson, and Emile Blackman have all gotten to the free throw line at a higher rate than the player they’re replacing. Increased playing time to Dukes with a good free throw rate like Jordan Robinson and Nakye Sanders should help as well.
This is a team that is going to need to push the ball inside if it’s going to be successful and they have players more comfortable shooting inside. Colter and Mason’s three point attempt rate last season was .486 and .633 respectively with half of Gill’s shots coming from beyond the arc. For Smith and Blackman, it was .252 and .275 even if Abrahamson shot threes more often than Gill. Expect the guards to attack the basket and the forwards other than Kale to focus on the post. Fans clamoring for Ferry to make good on his promise should feel rewarded by year’s end.
I’m not sure how good 2016-17 will turn out, but I do think we have reason for optimism beyond. Ferry finally has a roster set with players who can play his way next year and beyond. I’d expect the offense to be full tilt and more aggressive than in the past. I would also expect the bench to be used more liberally at every position. For me, fit is a word not used often enough to evaluate a player, but fit really seems apt to describe almost every current player on Duquesne’s roster. This team has the mark of Ferry, but now he needs to prove that his mark can win.