ALAN ROBINSON: An Opportunity - Not a Season - Lost for Duquesne
Feb. 14, 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
Right about now, fourth place doesn't feel nearly as satisfying to the Duquesne Dukes as first place did.
Duquesne's 71-63 loss to Atlantic 10 frontrunner Xavier on Sunday was a disappointment to most in the sellout crowd of 10,509 at the Consol Energy Center, where - for a change - red was the color of the day, not black and gold or blue and gold.
While the more experienced and, arguably, more talented team won, some left feeling it was an opportunity lost for an underrated and overachieving Duquesne team that was a few more made free throws, a couple of defensive stops and a big basket or two away from being alone in first place in the conference.
Remind yourself: The Dukes (16-7, 8-2 in A-10) were this close - and hold a couple of fingers about an inch apart - away from doing it.
Duquesne, down 10 points to the team that eliminated Pitt in last season's NCAA Tournament, rallied to go ahead at halftime and led by six points with just over 12 minutes to go. The crowd, on the verge of erupting all day, needed only a 3-pointer or a steal and layup to become electrified. It didn't happen, but that doesn't mean it can't happen in the future.
"Were playing against veterans, playing against a very good team and I don't think that should be left unsaid," Dukes coach Ron Everhart said. "Almost every guy on that team has been to the Sweet 16. When you handicap it, they're very good. I thought we did some real good things. But there were some plays we'd obviously like to have back that we didn't execute as well as we needed to. Some transition plays, we came away empty."
The Dukes forced 20 turnovers by the team that has won the last four Atlantic 10 regular season championships, even while playing a huge chunk of the second half without the foul-troubled Damian Saunders and B.J. Monteiro, whose scoring highlighted a 22-8 run in the first half. Monteiro, who had 14 points at the break, ended with 17, including a trio of 3-pointers.
One problem: the Dukes converted those 20 mistakes into only 10 points, or the average of one basket for every fourth turnover. Xavier, one of only two teams in the country to reach the NCAA's Sweet 16 each of the previous three seasons, commonly doesn't make such mistakes. Its previous season high was 18 turnovers against Gonzaga on Dec. 22.
"I thought we had a good game plan, I thought we had the game right where we wanted to have it midway through second half," Everhart said. "We just stopped scoring and stopped executing offensively. On the other hand, (Tu) Holloway took over the game there - five straight possessions he got the ball to the basket or made a deep 3."
Holloway, the A-10's most accomplished player, scored 20 points while playing every minute of the game. He had five points at halftime.
Still, there was much for Duquesne to be encouraged about despite losing its second in a row following an 11-game winning streak. And not just that the Dukes played before the largest crowd in 38 years to watch a regular season college basketball game in Pittsburgh that did not involve Pitt.
"The environment was tremendous, an NCAA tournament-style feel," Xavier coach Chris Mack said.
The Dukes' pressure defense, when it could be employed, created numerous turnovers and havoc - even in the half-court. And when the Dukes grabbed the ball and ran with it following a Xavier miss, the Musketeers were the slower team on the field. The far more experienced team, but also the slower team.
"The No. 1 goal for us was to keep the game out of transition. Easier said than done," said Mack, who relied on veterans such as Holloway and Jamel McLean to steady his team. "It's not enough to get back when Duquesne secures the rebound, its important when you shoot the ball to get back into half court. Because when it becomes open gym, up and down, they're as good as any team in the country playing that way. That's not what we wanted to get into."
Don't think if the teams meet again in the Atlantic 10 tournament, that's not exactly what Everhart and assistant coaches Greg Gary, Steve Hall, Rodney Crawford and Jason Byrd won't want to do: Get Xavier running.
"It can't become chaos. I thought our veteran guards steadied the ship and that's what you need against a Duquesne team that plays that way," Mack said.
Maybe that should be the buzzword for the Dukes should the teams meet again: Chaos.
If nothing else about the Atlantic 10 Tournament has proven consistent, it's this: The team that loses the final encounter before the same teams meet again in at least the semifinal round almost always wins the rematch.
In the last five A-10 tournaments, the 10 semifinal games were won EIGHT times by the team that lost the previous regular-season matchup. In 2010, 2009 (when Duquesne swept to the tournament final), 2007 and 2006, BOTH semifinal games were won by the team that lost when the teams met previously. Only in 2008, when Saint Joseph's upset Xavier and Temple beat Charlotte, did the winner of the most recent regular season game prevail again.
Xavier knows all about the difficulty of sustaining regular season success, too. The Musketeers last won the tournament, while No. 10-seeded, in 2006. Since then, they have won the conference regular season title every year, but not once did they win the tournament title.
But enough about possible rematches and the A-10 tournament. This is a very important week for the Dukes because they must go on the road twice for difficult games that, in order for them to win, will require looking ahead and not looking back. Reminding themselves why they're 8-2 in the conference and only a half-game out of second place. And recommitting themselves to playing every possession, every trip down the floor, with the same intensity and determination they displayed during their winning streak.
First up for the Dukes on Wednesday, it's Massachusetts (13-10, 5-5), a 59-51 loser at home Sunday to George Washington (13-12, 6-5). Then it's Dayton (17-9, 5-6) on Saturday, in a rematch of Duquesne's 82-64 victory on Jan. 30.
"We've got to stay together. We can't make this three in a row," senior captain Bill Clark said.
Something for the Dukes to remember: They remain the country's most unselfish team, if statistics are an indicator. Even after losing tight games to St. Bonaventure and Xavier, they are No. 1 nationally in turnover differential (7.4 per game; no other team in the country is above 5.7). They're also No. 1 in steal differential (steals for as compared to steals by the opponent) at 4.5. And they're No. 6 in assist differential (assists for compared to assists by the opponent). That's one spot ahead of Pitt, a team that nationally thrives by sharing the ball.
What would help is some better free throw shooting. It's not just tournament games that are won and lost at the charity stripe; regular season games are, too.
During the first two months of the season, Duquesne shot 65 percent at the line - not great, but not necessarily a game-changing percentage, either. (An 8 of 21 showing against Pitt dragged down the percentage.) The Dukes had efforts of 30 of 43 against UMBC, 18 of 26 against Wisconsin-Green Bay, 12 of 16 against IUPUI, 36 of 45 against Norfolk State and 15 of 21 at Saint Joseph's.
But since that Dayton game, the Dukes are only 56 of 111 at the line, a 50.5 percent conversion rate that is the fifth worst in the country during that stretch. Only Prairie View A&M, Auburn, Albany and Utah are worse.
During those four games, the Dukes went 13 of 27, 7 of 13, 23 of 43 and 13 of 28.
"That's got to change," Clark said.
What is free throw shooting? Confidence, composure and consistency. The confidence a shot is going to go in before it is released by a player who composes himself and focuses before he shoots. And consistency in delivery and execution.
The Dukes had all three Cs earlier in the season. There's time left to get them back.
And this week would also be a good time for the Dukes to remember how much there's on the table for them to accomplish this season.
Here's a goal: Complete Duquesne's first 20-win regular season since the 1971-72 team that did not go to a post-season tournament went 20-5. That's 40 seasons ago. That's also a reachable goal; the Dukes need to win four of their final six to accomplish it. Their remaining games are Rhode Island and St. Bonaventure at home; UMass, Dayton, Saint Louis and Richmond on the road.
A strong finish also secures a better seeding in the A-10 tournament.
"We've got to regroup and go on the road at UMass on Wednesday night, we've got to try to correct some of the things we didn't do well - and, in a two-day period, hopefully be a whole lot better than we were, at least in the second half," Everhart said.
Maybe that's where the Dukes need to heed one of the most clichéd adages employed by any experienced basketball coach: Keep your eyes on the prize and don't look back. Not when there's so much still to be done, so many games out there to be won.
Not when the scenarios under which this season will be most remembered have yet to be written.