Those who have read my pieces on Duquesne and college basketball in general may recall that there are four situations a program can find themselves in an offseason. The first and most ideal is ‘Building‘. This is where a team is poised to improve after returning most of their key players or adding some important pieces. The second is ‘Reload‘, where teams have internal options lined up to replace departing players. The third is ‘Transition‘, where the next core group of players is in place, but it may take a year or two to take over for a departing cohort. Generally, this means at least one down season before the program get back to it’s feet. Finally is ‘Rebuild‘, where at most a couple of the next core are in place. Often times, it takes 3-5 years to recover from a total rebuild.
As the Dukes entered into last offseason, they appeared to be headed for a transitional year. Gone were players like Micah Mason, Derrick Colter, and Jeremiah Jones. The issues only compounded themselves when L.G. Gill left as a grad transfer to Maryland. Some may have seen it as a rebuild, but the Dukes already had some players in place behind them. Eric James filled in adequately for Jones and could easily surpass his value to the team as a junior this year. Tarin Smith, who proved serviceable as a Big Ten starting point guard for Nebraska, would likely replace some of the production of one of the guards. After sitting out a year, it would have been difficult to expect him to replace one of them completely. Jordan Robinson and Nakye Sanders both looked like options to offset some of Gill’s productivity closer to the basket, while servicing in a post rotation with Darius Lewis and freshman Isiaha Mike. Neither could spread the floor the way Gill could. The team had question marks at one guard spot and the depth wasn’t awe inspiring. They’d need to rely heavily on players who had never played in the Atlantic 10 or in college basketball to have any success.
The offseason turned around in a hurry. Emile Blackmon, the MAAC’s number nine scorer a season ago, joined the Dukes as a grad transfer. Within a matter of days, the Dukes added a second grad transfer in Kale Abrahamson who is a similar player to Gill. Combine that with Mike appearing more Division I ready and Rene Castro’s summer league resurgence and the Dukes have managed to make the trend closer to reload than transition. Blackman could replace one of the departing guards, in theory, and the bench looked considerably better. Ken Pomeroy has the Dukes 168 in his preseason rankings just 12 places off their disappointing 2016 finish. In April, I’d have put them in the 200’s.
One might say that a reloading season to remain a mediocre program during a coach’s 5th season isn’t much of an accomplishment and possibly grounds for firing. I can’t say I agree with that sentiment. For starters, progress isn’t always linear and given the circumstances Jim Ferry was hired under, it’s important to consider how we got here. Duquesne fired Ron Everhart relatively late in March of 2012. To put it into perspective, Rhode Island hired Danny Hurley two days before Everhart’s departure. Ferry arrived at Duquesne days before the spring signing period opened giving him little time to fill the five open scholarships let alone evaluate his core returning players. He managed to cobble together a class that included a player who beat cancer and finished his career as Duquesne’s 6th all time leading scorer in Colter and an A-10 leading scorer in Ovie Soko. The problem is, five of the returning players with more than a year of eligibility left never made it as they all transfered to D-II programs after the season or quit basketball entirely. Coupled with the transfers of Marvin Binney and Quevyn Winters, Ferry needed to replace seven transfers. Really, this is where the rebuild begins and this one got off to an auspicious start. Isaiah Watkins, Ferry’s first recruit of the fall, never materialized and his second, January verbal Robinson spent most of his first year at Duquesne in NCAA clearing house limbo, ineligible to even practice with the team until the end of the year. This forced perceived projects Gill and Lewis into bigger roles as freshmen. Again, rebuilds can take three years and that’s when things go perfectly. They didn’t go perfectly.
Things began to change after that. There were fewer openings in the spring in each class. A couple of the scholarships that did not get filled went to former targets that got away like Castro and Smith. There was less scrambling and more constructing. This year’s freshman class will be the first composed entirely of fall recruits and its total members match the cumulative first year’s eligible to sign during the early period during the previous three seasons. Next year, there are already four lined up. A plan is beginning to take shape.
The question remains whether or not the Dukes will be able to match their win totals from a year ago. I will breakdown the Dukes tougher schedule and try to predict a range of outcomes in a subsequent post in this series. Reloading a program in college basketball’s equivalent of the dead center of Division I basketball doesn’t feel like an exciting place to be or much of an accomplishment. However, it’s certainly better than the alternative which was a team staring at ten wins and a finish deep in 200’s of the RPI. On top of that there are signs that things might be better from here on out in terms of roster composition and success in the fall recruiting period. The staff are landing their primary targets, and barring any major roster break downs, the program looks poised to build for the next couple of years, with young players serving as the foundation and others in the pipeline to supplement them. I don’t know if they have the foundation to return to the NCAA tournament yet, but this team could perform at a higher level if we’re just patient for one more year. The 2016-17 campaign has the potential to be fairly good, but they should take steps forward following this season.