After a late season collapse, the loss of one of the the greatest college shooters since the introduction of the three point line, and the departure of the program’s top assistant, you would think things are heading quickly in the wrong direction for men’s basketball at Duquesne. They aren’t and in fact, the program almost inexplicably seems to have some momentum going for it. Jim Ferry and what remains of his staff have gone on an all out recruiting blitz this offseason nabbing Emile Blackman and Kale Abrahamson first on the transfer market before class of 2017 Florida guards Jamari Wheeler and Darius Banks verballed within a week of each other.
Despite his early struggles and his disappointing overall results, it still might be a little too soon to sell on Ferry. In midst of the late season decline, I said that if he kept his job this offseason, he should have until the end of the 2017 – 18 season to prove his merits barring a disaster. I don’t believe in keeping a coach because of his incoming class, but I also don’t think that four years is always enough time to right the ship. All coaches need transitional periods after taking a new job to recruit and develop their players. Anyone expecting a immediate turnaround by the next coach is likely kidding themselves. Ferry offers the Dukes their only realistic shot of taking the program to the next level in the next 2-3 years simply because he has (or better have) his pieces in place already. His replacement would need 3-4 years to get cooking.
However, I do think he has a chance of righting the ship and making us, like LIU fans before us, forget the struggles of a slow start on the job. So what makes me think things can get better?
The Pieces Seem To Fit The System
During the first few years of Ferry on the Bluff, it never seemed like rhetoric matched style. He preached a team that drove the lane, drew fouls and took high percentage shots close to the basket. In practice, we saw a team that used an inside-out approach to set up jump shots. Part of that may have been playing to personal. It’s not often you have a Micah Mason on the roster. Derrick Colter and LG Gill weren’t bad three point shooters in their own right. With the slow developing core of big men, it made sense to build that offense around perimeter shooting.
Mason and Colter are gone, replaced by combo guards who can attack the rim. Blackman and Tarin Smith are a more prototypical Ferry backcourt and the rest of the roster seems more fit to play around the rim, with the exception of Abramson and freshman Spencer Littleson, who I wouldn’t expect to see much of this year. The Dukes have played fast under Ferry, but they haven’t exactly played the way I would’ve expected. That should change this year.
Ferry Has More To Recruit On
For a program that has slow built its way back to mediocrity after falling off a cliff four years ago, it might be difficult to imagine that the coach has much more to recruit on. However, Ferry does have some feathers in his cap. First, he’s generally been able to build a tight knit group of players. When you see these guys outside of normal games, whether it’s other Duquesne sporting events, summer league or elsewhere, Dukes tend to travel in packs. I don’t recall this as much in the Ron Everhart years, but these guys genuinely seem to like one another. It’s not as over the top as the women’s team, but family environment is becoming ingrained across both basketball teams at Duquesne.
Ferry’s also got a track record of developing his first class or two of players. The guys who have stayed have become considerably better here. Even as bad as the defense still was last season, they’ve gotten better at both ends. Colter’s jump shot improved and he was a more versatile passer by the end of his career. Mason went from needing to have his feet set for a second or two to make a three to a guy who almost seemed more comfortable knocking them down on the move. His ball handling and movement off the ball also improved and while it didn’t work at first, Mason was a legit combo guard by the end of his career. Jeremiah Jones’ basketball IQ caught up with his actual IQ as he learned to shoot less and set up his teammates more. Before his injury, he showed some of the best vision on the team. Darius Lewis was laughed off his first Pittsburgh Pro-Am court and has developed into a competent defender and scorer in the post. LG Gill went from nearly unrecruited to being a Terp. He may have seen the biggest improvement of all, growing in every facet of the game.
Greater Sense Of Urgency
My biggest criticism of Ferry has been his nearly constant focus on the future to the point where the games happening at present are secondary to some broader plan. I bought this his first two years, grew a little impatient in the third and found it somewhat unacceptable last year. Ferry is on the hot seat at this stage so for him, the future needs to be now. If it isn’t, he’ll be out of a job sooner than later. I feel like pressure could bring out his best because he clearly didn’t feel any before now.
The Near Annual Major Road Win
This seems minor, but in each of Ferry’s four seasons, his team has pulled off a major road upset. In his first year, a road win in Philly against Temple gave the Dukes their only conference victory in surprising fashion. Last year, the Dukes also won unexpectedly in the City of Brotherly Love against St Joe’s. The biggest of the three came against the streaking Top Ten Billikens in St Louis in 2013-14. While they didn’t beat anyone major on the road last year, they did knock off George Washington and Dayton at home. Though he still needs to do something more against the teams he’s supposed to beat, there is something to be said about the Dukes beating the teams they shouldn’t under Ferry and to do it so frequently on the road is impressive. He’s going in with inferior talent and less experienced players and finding W’s. That suggests to me that there could be more to his coaching chops than he’s given credit for.
The First Core Exceeded Realistic Expectations
By the time Ferry got to campus his first year on the job, most of the market for freshman talent had been picked over. Ultimately, he settled for a point guard otherwise headed for the NEC, and a guy who looked like a role player at best in Jeremiah Jones. He supplemented that core with a talented but star-crossed class his second year. Mason was obviously a godsend. A program that struggled with him may have been lost without him. Isaiah Watkins dealt with lingering knee issues and transferred. Though they seemed benign enough at first, they’ve completely derailed his career. Jordan Robinson was ruled ineligible and lost an entire year of development to academic issues. Domo McKoy served well as a JUCO transfer, but his services were no longer available in 2016. In the end, expected projects in Darius Lewis and Gill took more important jobs on the team and earlier than anyone would have expected. Both took their lumps and continue to, but both have grown considerably.
Under Ferry, Duquesne has generally lacked star power, but truly, the coach has only had one chance to obtain it and fully develop it. Sure, he had Soko and Mason, but neither managed to make a one of the top two All-Conference teams. He also never had the depth of experience to make up for the lack of a pure go-to. In the end, the caliber of Ferry’s first two classes is what he can reasonably judged upon at this point as they’re the only classes that have developed into upper class men. He’s extracted a lot out of these players, maybe more than he should have. However, the first was rushed and the second mostly busted, in part due to circumstances outside of Ferry’s control. Maybe 16-16 was an overachievement for this group and not a disappointment. If you look at it that way, a black mark suddenly turns into a feather in the cap.
Ferry may ultimately still lose his job, but again the Dukes best chances in the immediate future are with him at the helm. He’s shown flashes especially in big road wins, but he needs to coach like every game could be the nail in the coffin for his career. While I don’t think he’ll get canned after this season, barring a complete disaster, any misstep could be costly and a series of them could be deadly. He seems to be getting better players and the players seem to be getting better. That will need to translate into results, but I do think it still can. Ferry slow played his hand at LIU and honestly, if he takes eight years to get the Dukes to an NCAA tournament, would anyone complain that it took eight years? If he can get the job done, and I believe he might for the above stated reasons, style points won’t matter and these first four years will be an afterthought.