PITTSBURGH — Improving team defense is something head coach Jim Ferry has set out to change for Duquesne in 2016-17.
It started with the way he constructed his roster, as Ferry expects graduate transfer guard Emile Blackman (Niagara) to be a contributor with outside defense, along with redshirt sophomore point guard Tarin Smith, who sat out last year after transferring from Nebraska.
The infusion of athletes into the mix should be a boon for Ferry’s squad, as long as he can get all of his newcomers on the same page — something they’ve been focusing on at practice. In some ways, the experience of graduate transfers like Blackman and forward Kale Abrahamson (Drake) can be a boon, but they still need assimilated into a new team, with a different system and different terminology in a short amount of time.
“It’s funny because they come in with more experience in certain areas and with other things, it’s new to them, as well,” Ferry said. “Understanding how hard you have to play, understanding the competitiveness, they’re better than freshmen in that regard.”
Blackman, in particular, seems poised to step into a big role with the Dukes — as long as embraces the defensive role Ferry has laid out for him. Blackman was the leading scorer at Niagara a season ago, averaging 15.8 points per game in 33.4 minutes. With a deeper rotation and other solid scoring options, Blackman’s going to have to earn his minutes with strong play on both sides of the ball.
“Coach Ferry said from the day of my visit, that I wasn’t held accountable to be a better defender when I was at Niagara,” Blackman said. “He said if I don’t play defense, I’m not going to play. That was a big transition. He told me I’ve always been capable of it. Now, that’s really what I’m figuring out. … Offensively, we have a lot of talented guys, but the other end of then ball is what we’ve been working on the most.”
Blackman and Abrahamson got their relationship started early on. They took their campus visits at the same time and stayed in touch afterward, with both deciding to end up at Duquesne together. That’s helped them to fit in pretty seamlessly with the rest of the team.
“When we got here in the summer, it was just trying to mesh, getting to know everybody and working on chemistry, things like that,” Blackman said, noting the closeness of the entire team.
“There’s character in this group. They are characters and they have character,” Ferry said, laughing. “The personality of this group is great. They really like each other. They’re pleasant to be around and they can handle coaching.”
FOULS FOR ALL?
Last season, the NCAA officials came out with a strict standard in November, calling an unheard-of number of fouls in order to reduce the incidence of hand-checking and other physicals plays.
As the season went on, though, most coaches complained that the standard waned. Ferry expects it be right back to where it was a year ago, though, and he’s having his defense focus on limiting free throw chances against while still playing aggressively.
“We have coaches all over the floor [in practice] blowing whistles because we have to address it,” Ferry said. “We have to play without fouling. We have to do a better job of that, as does everybody. … I expect there to be a lot of whistles early.”
Duquesne played a secret scrimmage against Toledo and Ferry was glad to see his totally reworked lineup face off against some outside competition.
“We had stretches where we played fantastic defense at Toledo. We really made great plays and had high energy,” he said. “We had a good hour film session [Monday], which is exactly what we needed. Now they see it, when you see it against someone else when the lights are on.”
Ferry said he played 12 players over 10 minutes in the scrimmage as he tries to whittle down his rotation. It’s a tough call, as the Dukes have a brutal November schedule. They’ll play a stretch of five games in nine days — including a trip to Kentucky to visit John Calipari’s Wildcats. The Dukes will also visit Penn State in November and start December with The City Game against Pitt.
“It’s going to be really difficult, but you have to stay focused on the big picture, of getting better everyday,” Ferry said. “Hopefully what’s going to help us by being deep is that we’re going to play so many games in November. We play basically every other day. Hopefully the depth is going to allow us — if one or two guys is having an off night or is fatigued — to have that next wave to go to. That’s what we’re hoping to see.”