Pitt entered the City Game coming off the team’s biggest win of the season, having gone on the road to defeat Maryland earlier last week. Panthers head coach Kevin Stallings said he sensed a little bit of a let down despite the intra-city rivalry with Duquesne and the big stage of PPG Paints Arena.
Now, City Game victors for the first time in 16 years, the Dukes will have to avoid the exact same type of let-down as they face Robert Morris on the very same floor Tuesday. It’s a rivalry that started with similar dynamics as the Pitt-Duquesne one, as well. While both schools are mid-majors, Duquesne’s Atlantic-10 is among the cream of the crop amongst non-power conferences. The Northeast Conference, on the other hand, is one of college basketball’s least-imposing circuits.
The teams began playing in 1980 in the Colonials’ fourth season of Division I basketball and the series went pretty predictably for a while. Robert Morris scored the occasional upset, but from 1980 to 2009, the Dukes went 15-5 against their western neighbors.
But that all changed when Andy Toole entered the fray. The seventh-year head coach has a 5-1 record against the Dukes and has taken his team to an NCAA Tournament — something Duquesne hasn’t done since 1977. It’s clear that in the last few years, the balance of small-college power in the area has shifted.
The Colonials will come in hungry, as well, with just a pair of wins compared to seven losses. It’s the second straight poor start for Toole’s Colonials, and last year’s rocky beginning turned into his first losing season. A win against the Dukes would go a long way towards righting the early season momentum.
“That’s going to be a battle,” Duquesne head coach Jim Ferry said after the win Friday. “We’re going to see. We have two days of practice to prepare, hopefully that’s going to let us get better.”
Both the national RPI ratings and KenPom.com rankings give the Dukes a decisive edge, but as they very well know, this is upset season in college basketball. Clearly, it’s a game both teams will badly want to win. The Dukes will need to quickly move on from their big win over Pitt to focus on a hungry Colonials’ squad.
Duquesne guard Mike Lewis II was named the Atlantic 10’s Rookie of the Week for the third time this season and second week in a row after the Dukes upset the Panthers. Lewis II had 15 points in the win over Pitt and is averaging 10.2 points per game on the season for the Dukes.
He’s joined in the Duquesne starting lineup by 6-foot-8 forward Isiaha Mike, who hasn’t been scoring at the same rate, but his attention to detail on the defensive side of the ball has impressed Ferry.
“He was pointing at my clipboard [during the Pitt game] and pointing at the offensive end saying, ‘It doesn’t matter what happens on this end, we have to stay true and keep defending,’” Ferry recalled. “That’s a freshman. When you have a younger kid starting to say those things back to you, you know the message is at least starting to get there.”
For Robert Morris, three freshman have gotten consistent playing time: Braden and Dachon Burke and Clive Allen. Dachon Burke is making a big impact away from the ball for the Colonials. He’s averaging just 4.8 points per game but has 11 steals and three blocks.
Duquesne has never swept both Robert Morris and Pitt in the same season. The last three times the Dukes beat Pitt, in 1988, 1998 and 2000, Robert Morris wasn’t on the schedule. In 1980-81 and 1981-82, the Dukes went 1-2 against Pitt while beating RMU.
Pitt has swept both opponents many times, mostly recently for four consecutive years from 2008-09 to 2011-12.