ALAN ROBINSON: Dukes' Saunders is Basketball Version of Swiss Army Knife: Versatile, Reliable, Indispensible
Feb. 21, 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
Damian Saunders is a man of many positions for the Duquesne Dukes, and a man of no position at all.
He is a small forward who often ends up playing center - or power forward. A player who defends like a guard despite being listed at 6-foot-7, yet one who rebounds like a 7-footer. A tall player who steals the ball like a small one.
Most of all, Saunders is a throwback to the days when a basketball player was supposed to be an all-around athlete - scorer, rebounder, team player - and not just a specialist such a 3-point shooter or a non-scoring point guard. No matter his size or his position.
During four underrated seasons with the Dukes, Saunders - and this may surprise even Duquesne fans - ranks among the top players in college basketball in total rebounds, offensive rebounds, defensive rebounds, double-doubles, blocked shots and steals. Yes, steals. Combining such skills is almost unheard of because, to be ranked in all of the above, a player seemingly must play in the backcourt and the front court at the same time.
Or exactly what Saunders does for the Dukes (17-8, 9-3 in Atlantic 10), who look to rebound from a difficult, one-point loss at Dayton on Saturday when they play Rhode Island (16-10, 7-5) at home on Wednesday night
As Duquesne's regular season winds down with four more games, two at the A.J. Palumbo Center and two on the road, Pittsburgh basketball fans are getting their last few glimpses of Saunders. It could be that many won't have realized what they were seeing - or, for those who didn't turn out, what they were missing - until Saunders is playing in a pro league somewhere on the planet next winter.
As a player, Saunders is to a basketball team what those 400-piece tool kits from Sears are to a handyman. An indispensible item that is capable of fixing any problem, repairing any leak, patching any hole, covering up any deficiency, performing any task.
He came to Duquesne on the fly in 2007, turned down academically by Marquette at the last moment, primarily as a scorer who operated mostly on the wing. He leaves it as the Dukes' quasi-center, one who is expected to get the key rebound, block the important shot, shut down a late-game possession with a defensive stop - and, yes, score every now and then.
Saunders will not go down as the Dukes' leading career scorer or rebounder, but he is likely to be remembered for having a career that may be unequaled in its versatility for a long time.
"I'm happy the way I'm playing - I've always been a defensive-minded player first," Saunders said. "Lots of blocks, lots of steals, hitting players in the open court, is always what I'm looking for, and scoring whenever I can. Let them worry about scoring. I'll play defense."
Oh, yes, he also has developed into a team leader, too, one who has helped carry this surprising Dukes team to victories in its first eight Atlantic 10 games and an 11-game midseason winning streak. (To put that in perspective, remember that exactly half of Duquesne's last 34 teams - 17 - won 11 or fewer games during an entire season.)
"I've told him that I don't know of another player I'd trade him for," Duquesne coach Ron Everhart said.
Last season, Saunders nearly became the first player taller than 6-6 to lead the nation in steals; he missed by two. He ranks third nationally in steals during his four-year career with 258, trailing only 6-foot guard Devin Gibson of Texas-San Antonio and 5-9 guard Devan Downey of South Carolina. Gibson is 7 inches shorter than Saunders and Downey is 10 inches shorter.
Saunders also ranks ninth nationally in blocked shots with 282. He is 13th in offensive rebounds, 14th in defensive rebounds and ninth with 961 rebounds. He owns Duquesne records for blocks and steals.
Saunders showed off his versatility last Wednesday when he had 14 points, 13 rebounds, five steals, four blocked shots and two assists during Duquesne's 81-63 victory at Massachusetts. On Saturday, he had 13 points and five rebounds as the Dukes failed to hold a six-point lead with 4 1/2 minutes remaining and lost 64-63 to Dayton, where they have won only three times in 29 attempts.
During that game, Saunders passed former teammate Aaron Jackson and moved into 13th place in Duquesne career scoring with 1,429 points. On Wednesday, the 2009-10 Atlantic 10 defensive player of the year will break the school record with his 121st game played.
"When I came to Duquesne, I always thought I'd be a role player," Saunders said. "But after my freshman year, A.J. (Jackson) told me, `This is going to be your team.' And I've accepted my role every year since then."
Still, the play that ended the Dayton game is one that Saunders likely will wish he had played a little differently. Sean Johnson, taking the ball out of bounds at the Duquesne end with three-plus seconds remaining, tried to hit Saunders at midcourt with the in-bounds pass, but Dayton's Chris Wright knocked the ball away. If Saunders had broken for the ball instead of waiting for it, it likely he would have had a clear lane into the Flyers' end, where he could have taken a shot or passed to an open T.J. McConnell.
"We've got to make that last play," Everhart said.
"The game was right in our hands," Saunders said.
Or, in this case, right out of them in a game that Duquesne nearly won despite being outrebounded 48-22 - seemingly, an impossible feat. Dayton also had 20 second-chance points to Duquesne's two.
The loss may not necessarily damage Duquesne's chances of earning one of the top four seeds in the A-10 tournament and a first-round bye. Rhode Island's 66-60 loss to UMass dropped the Rams two games behind the Dukes in the conference standings. A Duquesne win on Wednesday would end Rhode Island's chances of overtaking them.
"We've got to be tough mentally, shake this off and get ready for the next one," Everhart said. "We've got to be ready to play again because they (tough games) don't quit coming."
If Duquesne gets that bye, it would mean one fewer home game for Pittsburgh fans to appreciate Saunders, who has willingly accepted that his ever-expanding role as rebounder and defensive specialist would cut down on his offense.
"This year, he's been playing more out on the floor than around the basket," Everhart said. "But he shown he's still capable of being a true center."
Saunders' current 12.9 points per game average would be the lowest of his three full seasons as a starter; he averaged 15.0 last season and 13.1 as a sophomore. (He also averaged 6.5 points as a freshman, when he started 19 of Duquesne's 30 games.) And his double-doubles in points/rebounds are down from 20 last season to six.
But while his statistical line suggests he hasn't played as well this season as he did a year ago, when he averaged 11.3 rebounds, compared to 7.8 this season, Duquesne's record says he hasn't. The Dukes are 17-8 after being 16-16 last season.
Even with three losses in its last four games, Duquesne has its best 25-game record since it also was 17-8 in 1980-81, or 30 years ago. By beating Rhode Island, Duquesne would match the school record for conference victories in a season set in 1981 and 1991.
Saunders and fellow senior Bill Clark would enjoy putting that on their resume.
B.J. Monteiro, like Saunders a graduate of Crosby High in Waterbury, Conn., has played much of his scholastic and college career with Saunders as his teammate. It will be different next season for Monteiro - and for Duquesne - with Saunders gone.
"It seems like we've been playing together forever," Monteiro said. "I know what he's going to do and he knows what I'm going to do. He makes it real easy to play."