The Duquesne Dukes look like a completely different team from what they were last year during their out-of-conference schedule even if very few faces have changed. Last year, they struggled against Shippensburg in a meaningless exhibition game before beating D-II Bluefield St and transitioning Abeline Christian. Then came the gut punch at home against a better-than-expected NJIT team. They rebounded with a win against Howard, lost again in the City Game and gave it everything they had against Penn State in what may have been the lone bright spot of the OOC season.
Then the wheels really fell off. The Dukes lost three of four badly to teams finishing the season in the 170-200 RPI range dropping their record to 4-6 against an assumed parade of non-conference cupcakes. It turned out more challenging than expected, but even a bad Atlantic 10 team shouldn’t lose in the manner they lost to middling programs.
Fast forward to now. The Dukes finished November 5-1 defeating some average to slightly above-average programs along the way. They cruised at home against New Orleans and Penn State putting in solid all-around efforts. They lost to a Pepperdine club that could find themselves in the top 100 when they get their act together. In their last two games, Milwaukee folded in the waning minutes of overtime, while the Dukes avoided doing the same against the late-charging Western Kentucky. All in all, the Dukes outperformed, convincingly at times, programs who project better than ones that they lost badly to last season. So what’s the difference?
I think the most obvious answer is that the team is a year older. They have three starters in their final seasons with guards Derrick Colter and Micah Mason and Jeremiah Jones. LG Gill is now a junior, as is center Darius Lewis even if he hasn’t received a ton of playing time. The Dukes are an experienced unit and oftentimes that’s a recipe for success, or at least improvement, in college basketball.
On top of that, they’ve played more by this time than last year starting with their trip to Ireland. Essentially, they tripled their exhibition season by playing semi-pro teams across the pond and that doesn’t even count the extra practice time they got to get ready for the trip. The staff made an odd schedule last year where they spaced games out with plenty of practice time in between. In theory, I thought this made a lot of sense but No-Basketball November may have contributed to their early struggles. Heading into their November 29th match up with NJIT, the Dukes had played twice compared to the Highlanders five games. As a result, Duquesne looked slow and rusty while their then-independent opponent looked like it was rounding into mid-season form. The Dukes played in as many games before their pre-Thanksgiving tournament as they did all of last November and I think the results reflect it.
The Dukes approach seems simplified, as well, and the coaching staff seems to be putting players in roles they’re comfortable with. While Mason will bring the ball up court from time to time, Jim Ferry has refrained from using him as the primary point guard again this year. He hasn’t changed anyone in the starting lineup’s role, though TySean Powell has played the four almost exclusively off the bench and he’s experimented with a four guard line up times. Sure they’re a bit out of the ordinary, but they’re not messing around with the bread and butter. They’re also not trying to fix something that isn’t broken. The Dukes also shifted from the 2-3 base back to a help heavy man to man. While this seems like a potentially major shift, it’s worth noting that the Dukes started each of the last two seasons attempting to play that way. It’s just working a little better this year.
Speaking of the defense, I heard a lot last year about how good the team could be if they just played average defense. So far this year that’s what they’ve gotten and then some. The perimeter defense is still relatively shaky, but they’re defending very well inside, holding opponents to 40.1% for two point attempts and 39.5% overall, 18th and 74th best in the nation respectively. They’re 95th in terms of effective field goal percentage. Problem is, they’re fouling too often, putting opponents on the free throw line as often as just about anyone in the country (336th), which has inflated their overall defensive rating to 100 points per 100 possessions. They’ve taken big steps but they still have some room to improve.
The Dukes have received great play from Colter. The DC native is third in the Atlantic Ten in scoring with 20.5 points/game and he’s really the driving force behind the offense. Inside, Lewis has become a player you can’t give much room. He’s hitting 70% from the field, good for second in the league while grabbing 20% of defensive rebounds. He’s also second in the team in defensive rating among players who’ve featured in all six games.
Meanwhile, Mason and Jeremiah Jones have continued the strong played they closed last season with. The pair have averaged 14.4 and 10.5 points per game, respectively, and have combined for 8.5 assists and 8.7 rebounds per contest. Jones is hitting a surprising 52.6% from the field and both own a 125+ offensive rating. While the Dukes probably can’t ask for more from Jones, Mason may still have another level he can get to. LG Gill has also been remarkable, particularly his perimeter defense.
Even with Rene Castro shaking off the rust, the Dukes are also showing more depth than they did at this time last year. While Eric James got off to a solid start in his college career, he’s looking like he has the staying power to play important minutes late in the season. His shot selection is much improved and his all-around game has looked more consistent. TySean Powell will make a strong case for more playing time, as he has the potential to be dangerous every time he touches the ball. Nakye Sanders has shown well as a true freshman and has pound for pound been the team’s best rebounder. While he still has some kinks to work out, Jordan Robinson has looked like the player the Dukes can easily lean on should they need him as well.
After six games, I think Duquesne fans know a little bit more of what they have. To me, they look like a team that can avoid another bad season and should be a CBI team at worst with considerably more upside. While the next three games are crucial to hold form, I would be very surprised if the record coming out of them isn’t 2-1. The next three after that will go a long way to determine just how good this team can be. Victories over St. Francis and Robert Morris are far from certain, as both teams have given the Dukes fits recently in their series. St. Francis will host the Dukes at the War Memorial in Johnstown in what appears to be one of their biggest home games in some time. Robert Morris is off to a horrible start, but you can throw their record out when they face Duquesne. If the Dukes manage one win, the overall improvement in 2015-16 will likely be minimized. If they win two, it should portend that they’ll take solid steps overall. Take all three and the stars could be aligning for a better than expected season.
All in all, this team will be better and they’re showing plenty of signs of improvement already. How much better is still up in the air. If they can keep up the solid play from their veterans, the defense stays passable and the bench proves reliable, they’ll at least be ok. If they take care of business the rest of the non-conference and improve throughout the season as they have each of the last two seasons, they could end up even better than that. It’s hard to be disappointed by the Dukes play following six games and their hot start could ultimately be the beginning of something.