ALAN ROBINSON: It's Tournament Time - and Dukes are Hoping it's Their Time of the Season

March 8, 2011

Alan Robinson, who spent the past 28 years covering Pittsburgh sports for The Associated Press, will be contributing to for the remainder of the basketball season. Look for his columns here every Monday and Thursday.

by Alan Robinson

Less than a month ago, the Duquesne Dukes couldn't have envisioned themselves playing this way heading into the Atlantic 10 tournament, one that may decide where, when or if they play any games beyond Atlantic City.

Since being 16-5 and leading the A-10 with an 8-0 record, the Dukes have dropped six of eight to fall to fourth place in the final regular season standings - good enough for a first-round bye, but not good enough for a team that led the conference halfway through.

Their statistics are down across the board, and they've created a tougher path to the A-10 title. Even if they beat the George Washington-Saint Joseph's winner on Friday, they might have to beat regular season champ Xavier AND the winner of the Temple-Richmond bracket to win their first conference tournament championship since 1977.

An impossible route? Not necessarily.

As the Dukes (18-11, 10-6 in Atlantic 10) head off to Atlantic City, where they made a surprising run to the finals during their last visit there in 2009, there are many things to still like about a team that was picked to finish in the bottom half of the league. And, too, some issues that cause concern.


1-They've lost six of eight. Huh? That's something to like? Could be. Late-season slumps often cause teams to refocus on the basics, the fundamentals that sometimes slip as the season drags on and the games pile up. And what better time to get back on track than the conference tournament? West Virginia, for example, dropped three of eight before winning the Big East Conference tournament championship in New York a year ago. Desperate times often result in, uh, desperation, a quality that's certainly desirable in March. Xavier won every regular-season title from 2007-10, yet didn't win a single tournament championship - possibly because it already was assured of playing in the NCAA tournament.

"I think it depends on the type of things you're doing well and not doing well," coach Ron Everhart said. "I think we've competed and played hard in every single game but one away game (at Saint Louis). If we can play with the same sense of urgency and effort that we have been playing with, if we can get a little bit of that execution part of it back that we kind of are missing right now, making some shots, making the extra pass, I don't think there will be much correlation in terms of how we're playing right now and how we're capable of playing in the postseason."

2-They're still playing hard. Very hard. Anyone who watched the St. Bonaventure and Richmond games saw this. The effort isn't much different from that of the team that blew out Massachusetts on the road and GW at home only a few weeks ago. What's missing is symmetry - and shot-making - on offense.

"I like our energy and out effort," Everhart said. "I think our kids are spending a lot out of energy and a lot of effort out there and playing extremely hard."

3-The kids are still all right. Freshmen guards T.J. McConnell and Mike Talley aren't missing a step, the loss at Saint Louis aside. Just like week, McConnell had 12 points, nine assists, eight rebounds and five steals against St. Bonaventure. That's not a sign of a player who's being worn down by his first college season. That's the sign of the A-10's Rookie of the Year.

4-There's a familiarity with Atlantic City. Damian Saunders and Bill Clark played on the team that sailed through the tournament and nearly upset Temple in the 2009 finals. They like playing in A-C. The Dukes' two second-team all-conference players have slipped statistics-wise the last few weeks, but this is their last conference tournament. If they're the competitors they've been throughout their Duquesne careers, this will serve as a motivator. Every player's last few college games often are those most remembered in 10 years, 20 years, 30 years.

"I think our guys have a sense of confidence being in the postseason because we have had some success there," Everhart said. "We've shot the ball extremely well in that venue, and I think that's probably lent itself to us feeling like that's going to happen when we get inside that place."

5-There's something more to play for, and soon. When the Dukes were 16-5, they appeared to be an NCAA-caliber team; then, the NIT would have been a disappointment. Now, a strong run in Atlantic City could set them up for a third consecutive post-season tournament appearance. No Duquesne team has done that since 1968-71.

"Our goal all along has been to play in the postseason once the Atlantic 10 season is over, that will be motivation to play well in the tournament and try to put ourselves in a position to get to the postseason," Everhart said.


1-They've lost six of eight. Sure, such a slump can be a motivator when a player doesn't know if the next game will be his last - either this season or in his college career. Still, motivation is a fickle and unpredictable quality, and it can evaporate forever in an instant, just as it can be regained with a single spurt of good play or a 10-0 run. Get it back, and the Dukes - as predicted all season - will be a very tough out in Atlantic City. Fail to recapture it, and they may keep playing with the unpredictability of the team that has beaten only UMass and St. Bonaventure in the last month.

"Right now, I don't like the fact we're not making the extra pass we made most of the year, sharing the ball quite as efficiently as we did before," Everhart said. "I'd like to see us get back to doing more of that. I don't know if we're making a conscious effort to really hit and rebound as well as we did earlier in the year. That's something we're going to have to do going into tournament play. If we can get back to using our energy and effort efficiently, especially when it comes to the rebounding end, and being more efficient on the offensive end, making the extra pass, that will serve as well in the tournament."

2-Numbers don't lie (sometimes). As they began the season 16-5, the Dukes averaged 15.3 points per game more than their opponents; since then, they've been outscored by an average of 1.4 points per game. Their shooting percentage has dropped from 47.5 percent during those first 21 games to 39.8 percent during the last eight games. As a result, they're averaging only 65.3 points per game since the GW rout; they were averaging 81.9 points per game before it.

"We've left a lot of open shots on the table. We've made 7, 8, 9 (3-pointers) a game and now we're making 2, 3, 4 a game. That's been a big difference in terms of us not scoring like we had been earlier in the year," Everhart said. "We have to go back and address that, and we've got to get ourselves back in the gym and shooting the ball. Hopefully, we'll get back some of the confidence and pop in our step we had earlier in the year."

3-Clark and Saunders need to play better. Few teams are better than the veterans who lead them. As the Dukes have slumped, Clark's numbers have dropped off from that of a player who had the look of a certain A-10 first teamer only a few weeks ago. Right now, this is a time when a college senior can get distracted by the possibilities that await when his career ends. But the best players, the most motivated players, are those that put aside such distractions to concentrate on getting his team as far as it can go in the postseason. It's not just the folks back home that are watching how the seniors handle such a situation, so are the pro and overseas scouts. They want winners, too.

4-They're not shooting well. Their 33 percent shooting at Richmond was the latest evidence of a team that's not shooting well from the floor, the foul line or 3-point range. (Their 3-point shooting percentage has dropped from 38.3 through 21 games to 27.2 during their last eight games.) How to correct this? Be assured the Dukes will spend plenty of time working on shooting before they leave for Atlantic City, and after they arrive there, too. What would help most? Clark and B.J. Monteiro knocking down the 3-pointers they're currently missing, Saunders putting in a few of the shots that are eluding Duquesne around the basket. And all the Dukes, seniors and freshmen alike, need to convert on all those layups they're getting - the kind they made for 2 ½ months, the kind they've missed for nearly a month. It's as simple as that.

5-The other teams want to win, too. Think Xavier wants to turn around its recent history of A-10 tournament failures? Think Temple and, possibly, Richmond don't want to head into the NCAA tournament with some momentum. Don't think Rhode Island or GW or Saint Louis want to make a surprise run and snatch away an NCAA bid that no one thought they might get. As the saying goes, the other teams are on scholarship, too.

It's tournament time. And, as many college basketball fans will argue, it's the best time of the year. Whether your team is playing well or not playing well at all, it's the time when a weekend's worth of magic can salvage a season, raise the national profile of an under-the-radar-team, push an underdog into an NCAA berth, create a star whose feats will be remembered for as long as tournaments are played, or, conversely, wreck four months' worth of hard work, sweat and success.

Simply, it's the time of the season.




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