ALAN ROBINSON: Road Trip!
Feb. 17, 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
AMHERST, Mass. - Let's go on the road with the Duquesne Dukes.
The Dukes, stung by a 71-63 loss Sunday to No. 24 Xavier that knocked them out of first place in the Atlantic 10 Conference, faced a game three days later that no team truly wants to play - against a wounded opponent.
On the road. At the time of the year when a single loss can badly damage a season.
Massachusetts, which opened 7-0, had dropped three in a row to fall to 13-10 overall and 5-5 in the A-10. The Minutemen also were beaten at home Sunday, 59-51 by George Washington, during a game in which guard Freddie Riley injured an ankle. With the A-10 tournament less than a month away, UMass was desperate to win.
And with Dayton following on the road Saturday, this shaped up to be a pivotal away-from-home week for the Dukes, who lost their previous road game, at St. Bonaventure, 64-62 on Feb. 5.
"We can't let it get to three in a row," senior captain Bill Clark said.
Coach Ron Everhart, his staff and players were determined not to let it happen, either. They went through demanding practices on Monday and Tuesday, with the intent of regaining the focus, intensity and confidence, they displayed during an 11-game winning streak that propelled them to the top of the conference and led to national articles by USA Today and The Sporting News Today.
Finally, the Dukes were getting noticed. But they also realized such attention can vanish in a moment when a winning streak abruptly turns into a losing streak.
Going on the road, with all the possible issues posed by bad weather, mechanical malfunctions, and other countless pitfalls, also is far more complicated than merely showing up at the A.J. Palumbo Center for a 7 p.m. game. There is airfare to book, hotel rooms to secure, food to be ordered, practice times to be booked, buses to and from to be secured (and at odd hours), as a college basketball team packs up and plays away from home.
Think there isn't a home-court advantage in major college basketball? So far this season, the average winning percentage for road teams in the various conferences ranges from .311 (Northeast) to .460 (Mountain West). That means that, even in the conference where home teams lose the most, no road team comes close to winning even half the time.
Everhart, who prefers to get all of his team's heavy pre-game practice work done on its own floor, extends Tuesday's practice past the time TV, radio and newspaper reporters were to talk briefly to the players before they departed for Amherst.
Still, the Dukes could take their time on this trip; rather than flying commercial, as most teams do, athletic director Greg Amodio had authorized a charter flight. That meant the team and support staff had its own plane to itself, leaving on its schedule.
"It's the only way to fly," jokes longtime Dukes radio announcer Ray Goss, who, based upon the estimated 1,200-plus games he has announced, has made about 500 such road trips since he first became the team's voice during the 1960s.
All the trip's logistics were handled by Duquesne's invaluable director of basketball operations, Jason Byrd, a Duquesne graduate who oversees every aspect of the trip. He must call the hotel when a name on the travel list has changed; he's constantly checking in with the bus companies to make sure that buses will be on time and on schedule not only in Pittsburgh but in the road city. Within several minutes at the end of any game in which the team has chartered a flight, he's on the phone again, alerting the airport exactly when the team bus will be arriving for the flight back home.
The details are endless, even for a traveling party that's much smaller than, say, than that for an NFL or college football team. One missed detail can ruin a trip that's been otherwise carefully planned for weeks.
While it's usually preferable economically to fly commercial, booking a charter flight means players don't have to miss a morning's worth of classes following a game - as they do when they must stay in a city for a second night. Amodio especially likes to book charter flights for mid-week games to minimize the amount of class time a student-athlete misses.
Once the Dukes wrap up practice on Tuesday afternoon, shower and grab a bagged lunch, they board their charter bus to the airport, where they are driven directly to the tarmac. Loading the passengers and baggage takes only about 15 minutes - even as a security officer makes sure each passenger is on a previously screened list - and the United Express flight lifts off shortly after that. The flight time on a cold but sunny day is only an hour, barely enough time to fit in a game or two on an iPhone.
Also making the trip is Dr. Kevin Deitrick, the university's assistant director of student services and the man responsible for monitoring the academic work of Duquesne athletes in eight sports. He travels with the men's and women's basketball teams as often as possible, holding one-on-one meetings with each athlete the night before the game to make sure all classroom work is being done. Some teams have study halls during such trips; Deitrick believes the athletes are much more responsive and productive when their work is monitored individually and in private.
Think that college basketball players take the minimal amount of class work in season to stay eligible, then make up for that with heavier summer class loads? At Duquesne, players take full academic loads even during the season. Doing so, for example, allowed Clark to graduate in less than four full years - something only a tiny percentage of upper-tier college athletes accomplish.
Making sure that players don't fall behind academically is one reason Everhart prefers not to stage a walkthrough-type practice the night before a road game, as some coaches do. Instead, after the plane ride and a 45-minute bus trip to the UMass Campus Center Hotel, the formal schedule is limited to an evening meal. The players then return to their rooms, where some watch - you guessed it - college basketball games in and around their meetings with Deitrick.
Staying on campus is a luxury on this trip; the arena is only three minutes away, thus eliminating what can be a wearisome trip through rush-hour traffic from a team hotel to the arena. The Campus Center Hotel is part of the UMass student union and, only a couple of floors below where the players stay in Marriott-type rooms, students attend campus functions, buy T-shirts and eat meals.
On game day, the team eats a buffet style breakfast before heading to the Mullins Center, a 9,600-seat arena built during former Pitt assistant coach John Calipari's successful stay there as head coach that included a Final Four trip in 1996.
The pregame shootaround is exactly that, a hour-long session devoted mostly to becoming comfortable with the arena's lighting, floor and baskets. Everhart reviews a few items of the game plan but no one breaks a sweat; there will be time for that later.
The players gather again at mid-afternoon for their pregame meal, which is heavy on chicken and pasta. Most eat quickly and rather quietly, reflecting the this-is-a-business-trip attitude that has been evident since the team left Pittsburgh 23 hours before.
After spending much of the season as the A-10's surprise leaders, the Dukes are disappointed with losing two straight. With six games remaining, they have a chance not only for the school's first 20-win regular season in 40 seasons but also to secure a top seeding in the A-10 tournament. But, with four of those six on the road, it won't be easy.
One point of emphasis throughout the pregame preparation has been getting off to a fast start. Everhart was unhappy his team didn't do that against Xavier, and he felt it might have cost the Dukes a game that they could have won against a more experienced team.
He'll get that fast start in Amherst.
Maybe it's was a telling sign that, barely 10 minutes arriving at the arena, players such as T.J. McConnell already are hitting the floor for some early shooting; several members of the UMass women's team are on the court from a just-concluded practice.
While UMass's 9,500-seat arena was one of the most difficult venues in the A-10 for opposing teams during the Calipari days, there's not much of a home-court advantage when only 2,453 show up. There's also not much of a turnout in the student section on a day when the on-campus newspaper devoted four full pages to previewing the men's and women's lacrosse season, but had no articles about the basketball game. (There had been two the day before.)
Once the game starts, the Dukes don't do much to get the sparse crowd into the game.
Just as Everhart hoped they would, the Dukes are playing fast, playing with confidence, playing with a purpose. McConnell is a step faster than any other player on the court, and Damian Saunders - with family from Waterbury, Conn. in the crowd - seems to be grabbing every rebound.
It takes two minutes for the Dukes to score but, once they start, the points roll up during a blinding blur of steals, fast breaks, disrupted passes, altered shots, back cuts and tipped balls. Clark hits a 3 and it's 7-4. McConnell hits a 3, then steals the ball from point guard Gary Correia and scores on a layup. Mike Talley, whose insertion into the lineup with 5 1/2 minutes gone has sped up the game to a discernibly faster pace, hits a jumper and McConnell - who has been the best player on the court since the start - knocks down another and it's 16-6.
"We talked about the first five minutes for the last few days," Everhart said afterward. "I told the guys you can never judge a man by his failures, but you can always judge a man by how he responds to them. I thought our guys responded, got off the canvas and fought hard."
With the game speeded up by Duquesne's trapping, pressing defense to a pace UMass doesn't want to play, the lead quickly builds. After the very active and disruptive B.J. Monteiro gets a rebound at one end and scores on a layup at the other, then hits a couple of foul shots, it's 26-6.
Starts don't get much faster than that on the road.
"We just keep attacking, keep playing passing lanes, that's what we were doing during the winning streak," Clark said. "I feel we've come a long way and we're going to keep improving."
The Dukes lead by as many as 23 in the first half, although a late UMass run cuts it to 38-25 at the half.
Everhart, right about then, is fearful another UMass run could turn what initially looked to be a rout into an up-for-grabs game - always a dicey proposition on the road.
"We were ahead of these guys 20 points at halftime last season and we lost," Clark said.
The Minutemen try to make a push; the double digit lead is cut to nine at 46-37 on Jesse Morgan's layup with 13:39 remaining.
Evans , despite being at an angle in which he seemingly couldn't get to the ball, somehow knocks it away from Morgan at midcourt. Monteiro, seeing the ball bound free, leaps for it and somehow gets it ahead to Clark for a resounding dunk. Just like that it's 51-37, the lead is back to 14 and an 11-0 run shortly after that seals it.
The big lead allows Everhart to give McConnell and Monteiro some valuable time off down the stretch, what with the game at Dayton waiting after just one full practice day back at home. The final score is 81-63 and it doesn't seem to be that close; the Dukes dominate the stats sheet.
Saunders scores 14, despite having only 3 at the half, and he also has 13 rebounds, five steals and four blocks.
"We were just getting after it, getting back to playing Duquesne basketball, getting up the court, pressuring the guy with the ball to get him to turn it over, playing the passing lanes," Saunders said. "We did what we do."
McConnell ends up with 15 points, five steals and four assists. Clark has a team-high 16 points, plus seven assists and six rebounds. Monteiro has 12 valuable points and six rebounds. Talley, playing at a game speed that none of the UMass guards could match, has 13 points (including three 3-pointers), three assist and two steals in 20 minutes.
And the Dukes - the Pittsburgh Stealers once again - match a school record with 17 steals while continuing to lead the nation in steals per game differential and steals per game. Sean Johnson helps out with eight points.
Defensively, the Dukes limit UMass to 35.9 percent shooting (23-of-654), including 33 percent (10-of-30) in the first half. Massachusetts turns it over 23 times (star guard Anthony Gurley has eight turnovers and nine points) and has only eight assists to Duquesne's 24.
Saunders caused much of this disruption.
"I'm a defensive-minded player first," he said. "Get a lot of steals, a lot of opportunities in the open court is always what I'm looking for."
Sometimes it does work out like planned.
"Defensively, we played with a great deal of energy and effort," Everhart said. "We had the type of motor I don't know we had the last couple of games. We really got after it defensively, got to the ball. I though Damian was as good on the defensive end for us since I've coached him. I thought McConnell was great setting the tone early. The guards did a great job in terms of controlling tempo and getting it to be played like we want to play."
Thanks to the charter flight, the Dukes are on the ground in Pittsburgh before midnight despite still being in Massachusetts barely an hour before. The quick turnaround means a near-normal night of rest for the players only two days before they head out on the road again.
The Dukes beat Dayton 82-64 at Consol Energy Center on Jan. 30, but this one will be far, far more difficult than that one was.
"Dayton is, by far, the hardest place to play in I think in the conference," Clark said. "It's a sellout crowd, a team that's very good and is going to give us their best punch. They're going to be a very tough opponent."
Time for another road trip.