After suffering through buzzer beaters and letting winnable games slip by earlier in the year, Duquesne has been playing much better ball the past four weeks.
The Dukes now find themselves at a season high two games over .500 (8-6) and winners of four straight. Two of those wins during their current streak were by just three points, which is a true change of pace from their early season struggles finishing games.
“It’s growth. It’s maturity,” coach Jim Ferry said on Dec. 22. “…[O]ur record could be significantly different, but it doesn’t really change who we are. I think it showed some character for us to bounce back.”
So what’s working for Duquesne and can it continue in A-10 play?
Mike and Lewis II
The common ground between the four games on this winning streak has been the strong performances from Isaiah Mike and Mike Lewis II.
Sure, there have been big games from graduate students Emile Blackman and Kale Abrahamson along the way, and Tarin Smith has shown signs of his explosiveness here and there, but the two freshmen starters have scored double digit points every game during this four win stretch (Lewis II has scored at least 10 in each of his last eight games). They have been remarkably consistent of late, especially in the final three games of the non-conference schedule.
Seeing a big game from a starter is a lot more fun and newsworthy, but with a young team that was looking to replace over 70 percent of its scoring from a year ago, you have to shoot for consistency. Mike and Lewis II were starting to show it at the right time, and Ferry complemented his forward on his aggressiveness and for not settling on plays.
The two cooled down in the Dukes’ A-10 opener at Fordham on Dec. 30. They combined to go just 1-10 from three point range, and Mike turned the ball over four times. Still, they found a way to contribute in the 75-72 win. Mike may have been held to just 10 points, but he racked up six boards and a pair of steals. Lewis II went 6-8 at the line and finished with 15 points, which was the second best for the Dukes. It may not have been spectacular, but it got the job done, and the Dukes opened their conference schedule with a road win against a team that was picked ahead of them in the preseason poll.
So was last Friday’s game a sign of things to come now that the competition will be getting stiffer?
Wednesday’s contest is against VCU, who have a pair of players who were represented on the preseason All-Conference defense team (graduate student forward Mo Alie-Cox and senior guard JeQuan Lewis). They might have their work cut out for them, but playing at home should help a bit.
There is a little bit of a reprieve after the Rams game, as they go on the road against La Salle on Jan. 7 and then return home against Saint Louis on Jan. 11. Both schools are struggling on defense. La Salle has allowed at least 77 points in eight of their 11 contests this year and teams are shooting at a .481 clip against them. The Billikens are doing a little better, but their 72.2 PPG average is hardly threatening, especially since it’s paired with their anemic offense. Both of those defenses are doing worse than Central Connecticut (61.5 PPG allowed) and Jackson State (69 PPG allowed), who the Dukes and the duo handled well during this winning streak.
While the schedule gets harder after that, there’s a good opportunity for both freshmen to find their footing early in A-10 play.
Robinson did not find any time on the court at Fordham, but the Dukes’ junior has proved to be a more complete player this year in limited minutes. His performance against Colgate on Dec. 22 was a bit out of the ordinary for him. With Darius Lewis in foul trouble, Ferry gave Robinson 11 minutes of action, and the 6’8” forward grabbed six rebounds. Even though he didn’t score, Ferry was pleased with the performance.
“Normally with Jordan, when he plays well, it’s because he scores,” Ferry said on Dec. 22. “…[D]on’t think Jordan’s not going to keep getting opportunities now when he keeps doing that. If he can play well without scoring, we have a chance to be pretty good.”
Robinson has only played in nine games so far this season and is averaging just six minutes an appearance, but there might be more time to be won, especially since Darius Lewis is being used less and less (the opening day starting center was limited to just five minutes in Fordham).
The Graduate Students
Blackman and Abrahamson proved why they were worth bringing into the program against Fordham. Blackman had a team high 17 points, and Abrahamson picked up his first double-double as a Duke, grabbing 10 boards and 12 points.
The two newcomers seem to have adjusted to the system and their experience could steal another A-10 game or two before the season’s all said and done, especially if they can do damage from behind the arc.
Blackman has been the Dukes’ best option from three, converting 35.7% of his shots from downtown. Abrahamson is also shooting at a 35.7% clip, though he has only played five games after sitting out the first month and change. He was second for Drake last year in threes (54) and made at least three in a game nine times.
While that’s a far cry from Micah Mason and Derrick Colter a year ago, it’s enough to keep teams honest. Between those two, Mike, Smith, Rene Castro and Lewis II, the Dukes should almost always have at least three guys on the court who could be a threat from deep. The deep ball was an important part of the Dukes’ game for years under Ferry, and making three pointers is a great equalizer when playing a good team. The two veterans will need to keep doing damage from downtown if the Dukes want to push for a decent seed in the A-10 tournament.