LOWELL, Mass. – Perhaps it’s fitting that Duquesne’s opponent on Saturday was UMass-Lowell, a new entrant to Division I this season. Even though Duquesne’s first season was 100 years ago, in some ways Jim Ferry had to start over when he took the job over a year ago. And while their 95-77 win at UMass-Lowell doesn’t contain signs that they’re about to become a contender in the Atlantic 10, it was a step in the right direction nonetheless.
Ferry isn’t talking like this is a team that has its eye on a conference title and nothing less. The Dukes will come into every game wanting to win and thinking they can win the game if they play the right way, but this is a team that has a little to go before they can contend.
“We’re just worried about getting better every day, that’s really all we talk about,” said the second-year Dukes head coach.
Duquesne isn’t exactly the youngest team in the country, but they’re far from a senior-laden team. The Dukes start a senior, two juniors and two sophomores, but after that it’s one senior and a bunch of freshmen. Their 12 scholarship players came into the season with a combined ten years of Division I experience. That makes the experience of players like Ovie Soko, who transferred from UAB and had a game-high 22 points on Saturday, all the more valuable. Ferry highlighted his competitiveness and how the young players see it, and also likes that “anywhere we go, against any team in the country, we’re going to have one of the best players on the floor.”
This goes back to what Ferry inherited when he took over the program last year. The big reason his predecessor was shown the door was because there was so much turnover in the program, as there were a lot of transfers in recent years. The bottom line results were generally better, as the Dukes had not been relevant for a long time before Ron Everhart made them so, but a slump year and more transfers got to be too much.
It’s pretty clear that the Dukes need to share the ball to win, with Saturday providing a great example as they had 27 assists on 33 baskets. Coming into the game, the Dukes had won just once all year when they assisted on less than 60 percent of their field goals, which came in their last game at St. Francis (Pa.). Conversely, they have lost just twice when assisting on at least 60 percent of their field goals, which happened at Pittsburgh and at home against Robert Morris, two losses where they had defensive issues.
Ferry said they talk a lot about sharing the ball and generally being unselfish, and that is something that happened at his prior stop at LIU-Brooklyn. He had unselfish teams with good balance, even though he had all-conference players and even the Player of the Year. He’s trying to cultivate the same thing at Duquesne, and with the offensive talent they have they know they can score if they play right.
“We talk about not holding it – don’t be the guy to hold the ball,” said Ferry. “If we can move the basketball, the ball will find a good shot and we have players that can put it in the basket.”
One player who certainly will benefit from sharing the ball is Micah Mason, who was back in the lineup after being out for a month with a broken bone in his hand. He showed no signs of rust by going 4-6 from long range, and with that he’s now 13-23 from deep on the season. That led a 13-24 showing from long range for the team, and the Dukes as a whole shot 62.3 percent from the field.
“He’s a great piece to have, because he’s a guy that spaces out the floor so much,” Soko said of Mason. “He’s such an important piece for us with his ability to shoot the ball.”
Still, the biggest area of concern is defense, and that’s understandable especially considering the aforementioned losses. They are part of a larger trend, as opponents are shooting over 46 percent from the field against them on the season, including 39 percent from long range. Besides those numbers, the Dukes have been out-rebounded on the season, including on Saturday by a 33-28 margin against a smaller UMass-Lowell team.
Said Ferry of the rebounding: “We didn’t rebound the ball to the level that we needed to.”
The Dukes have three freshmen 6’7″ or taller, and a fourth, Jordan Robinson, is unlikely to be eligible this season. There is progress there, and Soko and junior Dominique McKoy have done well, but depth up front isn’t there yet as there is a learning curve for the young players. Isaiah Watkins missed some time early due to a knee injury, and the missed practice and game time has hurt his early development.
Duquesne heads to Texas-Pan American after Christmas, then takes on Appalachian State at home to close out the bulk of non-conference play. They still have a trip to NJIT on January 31, but for the most part it’s all Atlantic 10 play after the next two games. They now have their whole team together, with Saturday being the first time all season they had everyone they will have since Robinson is almost certainly going to sit the entire season.
The Dukes are probably at least another year away from potentially contending in the Atlantic 10. Their young frontcourt players are a long way from their potential, as can be expected of freshmen. The Atlantic 10 looks like it will be formidable this season as a number of teams have played well in non-conference. As a result, Duquesne may well get better between the start and end of Atlantic 10 play but not have a record that is indicative of it.