ALAN ROBINSON: Dukes Hope That Playing Musketeers in A-10 Showdown Turns Into an X-cellent Adventure
Feb. 11, 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.
by Alan Robinson
For the Duquesne men's basketball team, X marks the spot.
Want to be the best in the Atlantic 10 Conference? Want to get additional national recognition? Want to make the rest of the conference believe that just-ended 11-game winning streak was a true indicator of how good this Duquesne team is?
Here's the chance to prove it. Here's the team to beat.
The Musketeers (17-6, 8-1 in A-10) and Dukes (16-6, 8-1) play Sunday at 2 p.m. for first place in the Atlantic 10. The CONSOL Energy Center is likely to be sold out (if you don't have a ticket, might want to hurry) and, for once, the No. 4 Pittsburgh Panthers won't be playing the biggest game in town this weekend.
The Panthers remember Xavier; the Musketeers eliminated Pitt from the NCAA tournament last season, winning a second-round game 71-68 in Milwaukee. The season before, the Musketeers led Pitt in the final minute before losing 60-55 in a Sweet 16 game in Boston.
"They're one of only two teams in the country that have been to three straight Sweet 16s, it's just been Xavier and Michigan State and that's it," Duquesne coach Ron Everhart said. "They've had a lot of success and their kids know how to win. It's going to be a very tall order for us."
Tall being the operative word. While only one Duquesne starter, the athletic Damian Saunders (6-foot-7) is taller than 6-5, coach Chris Mack's Musketeers start 7-foot center Kenny Frease - a double-figure scorer in eight of his last nine games - and the 6-8 Jamel McLean, who is third in the A-10 in shooting percentage and second in rebounding.
A tall order, indeed.
And the Musketeers would probably be a good team if they had 6-0 junior guard Tu Holloway and four walk-ons. Holloway averages 20.7 points and five assists (only three other Division I players average that many in each category) and was the ESPN.com national player of the week last week. He's been the A-10 player of the week five times this season.
Holloway is a complete player, too; he had a triple-double against Wake Forest on Dec. 18 and has made 39 of his last 40 free throw attempts.
"Tu Holloway is a great scorer and more than that, he's a great penetrator," Everhart said. "He's made more free throws than anyone else in the league has attempted. That gives you an idea of how difficult he is to guard getting to the basket. He's also a very good 3-pointer shooter, so you have to spend some time game-planning him - understanding what he likes to do and what he doesn't like to do. He's the key to their whole deal, he's their motor. He makes them run."
He's not alone.
The Musketeers have multiple players who can hurt an opponent. They aren't especially deep, but any one of their top seven players is capable of making a game-changing play.
Mark Lyons, a 6-1 sophomore guard, doesn't get the recognition that Holloway does, yet he is averaging 15.7 points during conference play and 18.2 points in his last six games.
McLean had 12 points and 10 rebounds against Georgia, his eighth double-double of the season.
"McLean is very active and bouncy. He takes a lot of things away from you because he has the ability to guard a guy and a half," Everhart said. "We have to find a way to neutralize him defensively and get him away from the basket and make him a perimeter defender as opposed to a goalie. That's going to be vital. "
Asked what concerns him most about the Musketeers, Everhart cited their overall balance.
"Xavier's ability to throw the ball inside, their speed at the guard spots and ability to penetrate with the ball, and the physicality with which their inside guys play," Everhart said. "They spend a lot of energy defensively inside the 3-point line and they're very physical. They make things very difficult for you around the rim. A lot of teams have tried to get them spread out, and defensively they haven't been able to do that. A lot of teams have tried to pack it in on them defensively and that hasn't worked. The way they attack you from the inside out, and the isolation situations with their guards, really concerns you."
The Musketeers have won nine of 10 and are coming off a 65-57 non-conference victory at Georgia on Tuesday. Before that, they beat Saint Louis 76-68 and Richmond 85-62 around a 66-62 surprise loss at Charlotte.
Not that Duquesne is running away from playing its biggest regular season game in Pittsburgh since the Dukes, then No. 14, beat then-No. 17 Villanova 87-78 on Feb. 7, 1971. During that 21-4 season that ended with an NCAA tournament loss to then-No. 5 Penn, the Dukes played five Top 20 teams during the regular season and beat four of them.
"This is the reason why you're wearing the jersey, this is why you came here, to have the ability to play in games that are meaningful," Everhart said. "This is reason why we work hard every day. This is the reason why we get up at 6 a.m. in the offseason and run on the track and spend so much effort in the weight room. Again, it's a great opportunity - let's go do our best to take advantage of it."
While it's the biggest game of the season to date, it's only the start of a busy and challenging week; the Dukes play at Massachusetts on Wednesday and Dayton on Saturday. By the time they play Rhode Island on Feb. 23, the Dukes - who have had a week off since their 64-62 loss at St. Bonaventure on Feb. 5 - will have played four games in 11 days.
"I'm concerned with the layoff part of it and would have been whether we had won or lost our last game." Everhart said. "Human nature is you dwell on the things you didn't do before. We've got to find a way to turn those into positives to make sure our kids understand we have to do a much better job in certain areas, and one of them is just flat shooting the ball. The other is we making sure we can get back to being physical enough that we can rebound with bigger, stronger teams."
Or a team like Xavier, which has lost only once since being beaten by Cincinnati 66-46 on Jan. 6. Xavier has won the last four Atlantic 10 regular season championships.
"We have to make it an up-tempo game, we have to negate their size and make it a speed and finesse game, and that's not easy to do," Everhart said. "If we can get stops in the half court and get out in the open floor, we'll give ourselves a chance."
Duquesne (78.9 ppg) and Xavier (78.1 ppg) lead the Atlantic 10 in scoring during conference play, but an up-and-down game might favor the Dukes because they've shown they can out-run bigger teams. No doubt guards T.J. McConnell and Mike Talley would like such a game.
There are other reasons for the Musketeers to be apprehensive. While they easily handled Duquesne 86-50 last season, they've lost their last two games in Pittsburgh -72-68 on Feb. 7, 2009, when they were No. 9 nationally, and 93-91 on Jan. 31, 2007, when Everhart was rotating interchangeable units of players in an attempt to speed up the pace and tire out opponents.
Despite their relative youth, these Dukes are proving to be a resilient team. During practice this week, they didn't appear to be dwelling on the loss at Saint Bonaventure; as senior forward Bill Clark said, it was time to move on.
"I like the way we bounced back and practiced, with a lot of energy and great effort," Everhart said. "I think we're guarding right now at a high level. Now, again, having been off and not playing at game speed, it may take us a minute to get that back. But having played 20 games already, we should have an understanding of game speed and how difficult it's going to be when we go out there and they throw the ball up."
Saunders is coming off one of his best games of the season after getting 16 points, 14 rebounds, three blocked shots and three assists against the Bonnies. Clark has scored 20 points or more nine times. And B.J. Monteiro is proving to be one of the most valuable players in the A-10, averaging 17.2 points while shooting 55.6 percent in his past five games. Now that he's reached this level of consistency, Monteiro needs to keep elevating his play as Duquesne winds down the season with its last seven games.
"Our guys believe in themselves, and they're playing well as a team," Everhart said. "I think everybody with our team, from coaches to players, embraces the opportunity to go out and play a team like Xavier at this point of the year - and that game being for first place in the Atlantic 10."
And consider this: The last time the Dukes played a game this big, these players' grandparents were relatively young. Duquesne doesn't appear willing to wait another 40 years for the chance to play - and win - a game that can bring so many rewards.