A promising 10-2 start to the season for the Duquesne Dukes seemed reason for optimism. The Dukes have endured three straight losing seasons, winning no more than 13 games in any of them since the arrival of Coach Jim Ferry. Ten victories before entering conference play appeared to be a signal that the tides may finally be turning for the program.
Then conference play began with a thud. The Dukes lost their first three Atlantic 10 contests, albeit against some of the tougher league competition. They hung tough in their opener against Dayton, sticking within four points in the final minute before eventually losing by eight, 66-58. However, their next two tilts an 11-point loss at Davidson, and then George Washington blasted the Dukes 91-64 for that third consecutive loss.
Sitting at 10-6 and 0-3 in conference play, it seemed the Dukes’ dream season was crashing back to reality.
After enduring the rough start, Duquesne has rebounded and proven to be a team with resiliency. Since the debacle at George Washington, the Dukes have won five of their last seven games and moved back towards the top of the A-10 standings. Their record now stands at 15-8 overall, 5-5 in the conference.
Though the recent hot streak has no doubt re-instilled the Dukes confidence, their winning ways have returned mainly at the expense of league bottom feeders. Of the five wins, four have come against Saint Louis, George Mason, and La Salle, three of the four teams in the A-10 cellar.
“It’s always nice to see kids mature and your team mature,” said Ferry, “We are finally having some upper classmen to be leaders. It’s a group that works hard. They are really defending and locked in. As our front court players improve we become a better team as we know what we will get out of Derrick and Micah every night.”
On deck, Tuesday night’s game at Dayton presents a much stiffer challenge. Dayton enters with a record of 19-3 overall, 9-1 in the conference. The Flyers sit in first place atop the Atlantic 10, ranked 24th in the country, and currently projected as a 5-seed in the NCAA Tournament, according to bracketology by ESPN’s Joe Lunardi.
Dayton features a dynamic backcourt including leading scorer Charles Cooke (16.1 ppg) and veteran floor general Scoochie Smith (9.9 ppg. and 4.3 apg.). They also boast a rugged frontcourt that can rebound and score. Forward Kendall Pollard has contributed steady play all year, averaging 11.3 points and 5.1 rebounds per night. The Flyers have been buoyed by the return of senior forward Dyshawn Pierre. Pierre, suspended from the team for the first semester, is averaging 14.1 points and 7.7 rebounds per game in conference play.
“For us, I think we are playing pretty good basketball,” said Dayton coach Archie Miller, “We have been very consistent. Offensively, we have been getting a lot of different contributions, game-in, game-out. Once you get into conference play in January, you get into the rigamorole of preparing for different teams. You have to carry your defense wherever you go, especially on the road.”
Through strong back court play the Dukes can fill it up with the best of them, averaging over 79 points per game as a team. Starting guards Derrick Colter and Micah Mason have done most of the heavy lifting. Colter is averaging 18.3 points per game and Micah Mason 16.3, both career bests. Forward L.G. Gill and imposing Center Darius Lewis supply the Dukes with some muscle down low.
Yet, it still remains to be seen where the Dukes stack up in the Atlantic 10 pecking order. To raise their seeding in the Atlantic 10 Tournament in the second week of March, Ferry’s club will have to play better against the league’s premier teams. The Dukes are an underwhelming 1-5 against teams above them in the conference standings following what Coach Jim Ferry called, “a disappointing loss” Saturday to Davidson 93 to 82. The defeat was the Dukes second of the season to Davidson. The loss proves especially painful, as it saw Davidson leap ahead of Duquesne in the A-10 standings.
“We have played pretty good basketball overall,” said Ferry, “You have to approach this at one game at a time as you do at the beginning of the season.”
Tuesday’s matchup against first place Dayton is an opportunity. Duquesne has a chance to confirm they belong. It also provides an excellent opponent to use as a measuring stick. If the Dukes can stand toe to toe and play competitive ball, it will show they a team are capable of contending with the conference’s top dogs. Though, an unflattering loss could prove just the opposite. Tuesday night’s showdown offers a competitive gauge. It also helps determine whether these Dukes truly measure tall enough to ride the roller coaster alongside the other big boys of the rough and tumble Atlantic 10.