Looking for the Dukes? Might Want to Glance Upward
Jan. 24, 2011
Alan Robinson, who spent the past 28 years covering Pittsburgh sports for The Associated Press, will be contributing to GoDuquesne.com for the remainder of the basketball season. Look for his columns here every Monday and Thursday.
Late January in Pittsb-r-r-r-gh, and the nasty temperatures and whipping winds off the three rivers are frigid enough to freeze a Terrible Towel in mid-twirl. Too often in the past, fans and alumni looking for Duquesne in the Atlantic 10 standings during the coldest weeks of the year were forced to glance downward to find them. Amid a jumble of indistinguishable, bottom-feeding teams with no true identity or recognizable characteristics, they could be found, long since frozen out of the conference race.
Way, way down, too.
Not this time, not this team, not this year. Not during a Duquesne season that is rapidly taking on the look of being special, being memorable, being one that will fill up more than a few scrapbooks - even if, in this digital day and age, it's a virtual scrapbook. One that will be recalled for more than a single well-played game or an individual record or a slam dunk that is immortalized on YouTube.
Looking for the Dukes in the A-10 standings? Might want to look upward.
Way, way up.
As coach Ron Everhart's Dukes (13-5, 5-0) head off to New York City to play Fordham (6-11, 0-5) on Wednesday night, they're riding a winning streak that is invoking memories of one compiled by the finest Duquesne team in 40 years. They're tied with Xavier for first place in the A-10, and they're waking up the echoes from the time when the Dukes weren't just one of the best seven or eight teams in the conference, but one of the seven or eight best in the nation.
They're winning - eight in a row - with a fast-paced system, a defined style and a substance that suggests this is a team built for the long haul, one that won't be deterred by a single defeat or an occasional bad game .
Just ask Jarrett Durham, Duquesne's radio analyst and a longtime coach who has been down this path before at his alma mater. He was the star power forward on the 1970-71Dukes who put together a wondrous winter of winning, one that featured a 15-game winning streak and an upset of the team that scored the biggest upset of that season one game later. Those Dukes, made up almost entirely of players who later played in the NBA or ABA, WERE unbeaten in January (7-0) and lost only once in February (8-1) after winning THEIR first seven that month.
That team was more seasoned and accomplished than this one - Duquesne went to the NCAA tournament twice and the NIT once during a three-year run - but Durham is putting no limits or restrictions on what this 2010-11 team is capable of doing.
"I think this team has great chemistry and it starts with the two freshman guards (T.J. McConnell and Mike Talley)," Durham said before the Dukes' 83-67 hammering of Charlotte on Saturday. "What you have to remember is they are the sons of coaches. So they understand the little nuances of the game. When T.J. and Mike take over, they don't care who scores and it resonates around the rest of the team. If you're getting the ball when you're open, you want to reciprocate when one of your teammates is open. It isn't often today when guys pass up a good shot to get a better shot. And that's what this team does on a consistent basis."
Whether it's Damian Saunders, Bill Clark, B.J. Monteiro or Eric Evans, they all say the same thing. Lighting up the scoreboard is more important to them than filling up a stats sheet. Pittsburgh basketball fans have grown accustomed to coach Jamie Dixon's Pitt Panthers playing with an enviable blend of ego-less chemistry and the mindset that the team is all that matters, and these Dukes are buying into the concept, too. Even if they're doing it at a slight faster pace.
"We're so unselfish," said Monteiro, the former Connecticut high school scoring champion who, with a little more consistency, might end this season being mentioned as one of the nation's most improved players. "It started with preseason running. When somebody was down, we all would come and pick him up and get him to keep running. I think we're a real unselfish team. We always want everybody to be on the stat sheet. We take pride in being one of the top teams in the country in assists."
They are, ranking second in assists per game following Saturday's NCAA games. (Pitt, coincidentally, is No. 1.) Duquesne also is No. 4 in steals per game and steals per game differential, No. 10 in steals to turnovers , No. 12 in quality offense (points plus assists and rebounds) and No. 18 in points per game differential.
Some teams don't get 33 steals in half a season. Duquesne has that many in its last two games, including 16 during a dominating effort against Charlotte in which the Dukes forced a remarkable 26 turnovers.
"I'm sitting here right now shocked," Everhart said of hearing that number.
Here are some more compelling numbers: The Dukes are averaging 87.3 points in their nine A.J. Palumbo Center home games. They've held all five A-10 opponents to at least one half of 30 or fewer points. They've led at the half in 16 of 18 games, and have enjoyed at least a seven-point lead in every game. And all 13 victories have been by a double-digit margin.
As for that winning streak, which began after a difficult two-overtime loss to George Mason on Dec. 22, Monteiro said, "We know we're doing something special. Especially me. I've been here three years and we haven't done anything like this. We try not to talk about it, we just play one game and then look to see who we're playing next."
Durham remembers another Duquesne team like that one. The '70-'71 Dukes beat four teams ranked in the AP Top 17 during their winning streak, including No. 9 Notre Dame (81-78, OT) and No. 10 Saint Bonaventure (89-68) during a six-day span in which they won three times. The streak carried coach Red Manning's team to No. 8 in the AP poll.
The highlight win was over Notre Dame, one that ended with Durham being carried off the Civic Arena floor on the shoulders of overjoyed students and fans. Only five days later, the Irish would knock off No. 1 UCLA 89-82, the only loss that season for a national championship team that featured Sidney Wicks, Curtis Rowe and Henry Bibby. UCLA wouldn't lose for another 88 games, or until the Irish beat the Bruins again in 1974.
"If you looked at that ('70-'71) team's roster, everybody was from western Pennsylvania or eastern Ohio," Durham said. "We kind of knew each other and played against each other before, so we were comfortable playing together."
Durham sees a similar and fast-growing comfort level in this team, one that is deeper and has more clearly defined roles than last season's 16-16 team did. The addition of the young-yet-mature guards, the emerging leadership skills of Clark, the consistently fine all-around play of Saunders and a bench where's there no deadwood all are contributing to the rapid improvement and maturation.
"We're playing with a lot of energy and defending well," Everhart said. "We make two guys play one and kick it to the open people."
Only five years ago, it can be recalled, it was Duquesne that was getting kicked around during a 3-24 season that led athletic director Greg Amodio to bring in Everhart from Northeastern. Everhart had rebuilt programs at McNeese State and Northeastern, but this was a reconstruction project of a much more demanding order.
"When he took the job here at Duquesne, a lot of people told him it would be impossible to succeed," Charlotte coach Alan Major said, pointing to the fact the Dukes have had only one losing season under Everhart. "He's done a phenomenal job."
Right job, it's a job that, much like an under-construction high-rise, remains a work in progress. The blueprint is being followed, the foundation is in place, the first few stories are beginning to rise, the concept is finally becoming reality, but there is much heavy lifting to be done, much more sweat equity to be invested.
Still, what's occurring during the chill of January suggests that it won't be the only month that creates lasting memories and a few magical moments. There's February and March - and maybe a longer one than usual - to go.
"I pretty much want to beat every team we play as much as we can," Monteiro said. "We know we have a good team. ... At the beginning of the year, we weren't putting things together. Now we want to go out and beat everybody."