PITTSBURGH — The Duquesne Dukes are off to a 2-3 start to their 2016-17 season, and it’s not exactly an unexpected development. Duquesne head coach Jim Ferry is breaking in four new starters this season and that’s never easy. To compound matters, the Dukes have played an extremely difficult non-conference schedule to this point.
Duquesne is 2-1 inside the confines of the A.J. Palumbo Center, beating Loyola Maryland and St. Francis and losing a one-point game to Canisius. On the road, they’ve taken a pair of beatings as they went into the home gym of power five foes Penn State and Kentucky.
Ferry knew the likely outcomes of those games when he scheduled them, but there can be a tangible benefit to playing those games for the Dukes.
“As we come back as a group, your learn from those environments,” Ferry said after practice Tuesday. “You always learn more about yourself after a loss than you do a win. But I think that one — to go into that environment and understand how disciplined and mentally tough you have to be to even compete against a team like Kentucky. It’s going to be the same thing when we get to league play.”
The biggest lesson he’s hoping his players take away from the 93-59 loss is a greater level of care with the basketball. The Dukes had 18 turnovers against the No. 2 Wildcats, and that’s not the recipe for an upset when playing in the gym of a top opponent.
“I think for the first 13 minutes [against Kentucky Sunday], we competed really hard,” Ferry said. “I think they just wore us down. They have a bunch of NBA players playing really, really hard and swarming you in front of 25,000 people. I think it just wore us down. I think that’s something that our kids got to see — how hard we have to play. We have to take care of the ball and be together as one. We’re not there yet. Turnovers led to open looks, which led to dunks, which got them going.”
PUTTING IN WORK
While senior Darius Lewis, Nebraska transfer Tarin Smith and Niagara grad Emile Blackman have all experienced the biggest stages in college basketball before, playing in a hostile environment like Rupp Arena will have the biggest effect on freshmen Mike Lewis II and Isiaha Mike.
“I don’t know if people noticed, but I left the freshman in a lot for that game,” Ferry said. “I had a reason. Whether we were up and winning or down late, I had them in there, because they need that experience as quickly as they can get it. As quickly as we can get them experience, by league play, they’re going to be a lot more seasoned than they are now.”
Lewis and Mike are going to be important pieces for the Dukes this season. Already, Mike is the team’s second-leading scorer and rebounder. Lewis was the A-10’s Rookie of the Week last week. Ferry is expecting there to be some growing pains, but so far, is satisfied with the work effort both players are putting in.
“They’re freshman,” he said “It’s funny, because everybody else talks about the expectations. My only expectation is that they come in, play hard and get better every day. … They’re going to be up, they’re going to be down. They’re freshmen. They’re not one and done kids. They have to understand how hard they have to work every day in practice, they have to get better defensively, they have to understand the flow of the offensive game, they have to understand how too quickly recover from mistakes. They have to understand how to take care of their bodies, sleep right and eat right. The whole thing. They’re freshmen. They’re up and down. … As long as they understand that there’s a process to it and they’re using every day to get better, then they’re meeting expectations.”
The Dukes may have cleared the biggest hurdle on the schedule, but it’s not going to get a whole lot easier. This week, they host Tennessee-Martin and Cleveland State, followed by Maryland-Baltimore County and then The City Game against Pitt.
UT-Martin and Cleveland State may not necessarily move the needle for a casual college basketball fan, but they are top-flight mid-majors that can expose any team that doesn’t have a good night against them.
“UT Martin starts four seniors, with multiple [major-conference transfers],” Ferry said. “They won their conference last year. They’re averaging 86 points per game. Their only loss is to Ole Miss by three. … They’re really, really good. I haven’t broken down any Cleveland State tape, but they’re always really, really good, too.”
The advantage the Dukes have this week is that they’ll be playing at home instead of inside a hostile environment.
TO THE WIRE
It should be a chance for the young Dukes to get some more experience playing competitive basketball. Ferry thought they should have beaten Canisius given the game situation, but turnover and a lack of focus on defense did his team in down the stretch. They’ll have to clean that up if they want to win games against more experienced opponents.
“We have to stop turning the ball over,” he said. “We still look out of sync offensively. And then we still have to defend better. We have to finish games. We had an opportunity to win at home [against Canisius]. We were up five with a minute to go. We didn’t get a stop, we didn’t contest a shot and we turned the ball over. We have to finish games on both sides.”
‘JUNK YARD DOG’
In addition to his almost-all-new starting five, Ferry is relying on several returning role players off the bench. The best of that bunch, in his estimation, has been sophomore forward Nakye Sanders. Sanders, a Staten Island, New York, native, plays with some of the grit that his hometown is known for. That’s a trait Ferry, another New Yorker, can appreciate.
“Nakye Sanders has been the most consistent player for us,” Ferry said. “He’s our junk yard dog and he’s consistently played that way. I think everybody else has been some good, some bad. I think he’s been the most consistent guy for us.”