In early November, I spoke with Jon Rothstein of CBS Sports to learn his preseason views surrounding the 2016-2017 Duquesne men’s basketball squad. Before the season even began, Rothstein asserted that freshman guard Mike Lewis II was “the guy that you want to put in bold print” when looking at their roster. 14.1 points-per-game, four Atlantic-10 Rookie of the Week awards, and a highlight featured on ESPN’s SportsCenter later, Mike Lewis has justified Rothstein’s prediction. On Thursday night, Pittsburgh Sports Now spoke with Duquesne’s star freshman as the Dukes’ approach their regular season finale against Saint Joseph’s University.
“It’s exciting, but at the same time it’s like ‘wow,’” Lewis said, regarding the regular season finale. “It just felt like last week it was my first time coming up here for summer workouts. It’s like, ‘Wow, time has passed fast,’ but at the same time it’s also exciting.”
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The Dukes have dropped four straight games heading into Saturday’s home matchup versus SJU. While a loss would not cripple Duquesne, the 6-foot-1-inch guard believes a win would improve the team’s mentality heading into the Atlantic 10 tournament.
“I think it would be very important for our team, because it’s a four game losing streak … We were so close to getting wins, and we just haven’t been able to pull them out. Getting a win Saturday will be a good confidence builder I think for us as a team, and [it could] take some pressure off our shoulders going into the tournament.”
In less than a week, Mike Lewis will participate in his first conference tournament. The first round of the 2017 Atlantic-10 tournament begins on March 8th, and as a bottom-four seed, the Dukes will be one of the four teams to compete on opening day. For Lewis, a lifelong fan of college basketball, Wednesday cannot arrive soon enough.
“It’s exciting,” he said. “I used to watch all the conference tournaments as a kid growing up. The past couple years I’ve watched the A-10 tournament. And it being at home across the street also helps a lot. [We] don’t have to travel, and [we’ll] have some of our home fans there. I’m familiar with the court and everything like that, so it’s definitely exciting and I can’t wait for it to start.”
This year’s Atlantic 10 tournament will take place at PPG Paints Arena, less than a quarter mile from Duquesne’s campus. Having played three regular season games at PPG Paints Arena this season, Lewis believes the familiar court and hometown setting will play to the Dukes’ favor.
“I think it gives us a lot more confidence. We’ve had success in that building; we beat Pitt over there earlier this year. We also lost to Robert Morris over there, too. I think it helps, because we’re familiar with the rims and we’re familiar with the atmosphere of it. And not being too far away, you get to sleep in your own bed and eat things that you normally can eat before a game.”
Comfort and familiarity are welcomed at a time of year known as March Madness. But while Lewis will be acquainted with the setting, he anticipates a change to the style of basketball played next week.
“I’m pretty sure just from watching and having an understanding of how college basketball’s gone so far, it will probably be more intense – you know, more emotion,” said Lewis. “People will care more because everybody is trying to get a high seed, or even win to make it to the Big Dance. I can definitely feel that it will be more intense, for sure.”
Holding a 10-20 record with one game remaining, Duquesne must win the Atlantic 10 tournament to earn a berth in the NCAA tournament. Although their conference tournament could be viewed as an “all-or-nothing” scenario, Lewis and the Dukes will approach each game with a more focused mindset.
“It’s just take it game-by-game,” Lewis said of his team’s approach. “Go in, try to get a win, continue to win, and see how far we can go.”
Enduring the rigors of a collegiate season for the first time must challenge the fortitude of any freshman. Lewis acknowledges the physical toll that the season takes on a player’s body, but he finds comfort in the mental development achieved by playing so many games.
“In the first couple of games, of course my body was feeling very, very good,” Lewis recalled. “And then as the season goes on, you start to get some wear and tear. Your legs aren’t as fresh, but you still have to play at a high level and get through those things. And as far as playing style, I’m just much more comfortable with what my coaches want from me, what my teammates expect, and what I expect from myself to do on a nightly basis.”
The past few months have also been Lewis’ first experience with balancing late-season Atlantic 10 basketball and collegiate academics. Luckily, Mike received training for managing his current schedule while attending high school at Chaminade College Preparatory School in St. Louis, Missouri.
“Actually, my high school did a very good job of that,” he said. “We traveled a little bit in high school – nothing like the A-10, of course. But we traveled a little bit in high school, and my high school was very demanding on academics. Coming to college wasn’t easier, but it wasn’t like a shell-shock to me. [I’m] just staying around my academic advisor, making sure I’m staying on top of assignments, and studying when I have my free time.”
Overall, the Dukes’ starting guard holds a positive outlook on his freshman season so far.
“I think it’s been a pretty good season for myself, personally. I think there are some things I could have done better – [that’s me] just being myself, being hard on myself. But from a statistical standpoint, and everybody around me, still I’ve done a pretty good job as a freshman.”
As a four-time recipient of the Athletic 10 Conference’s Rookie of the Week award, “pretty good” may qualify as an understatement. Lewis appears to be the favorite to win Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Year, which would make him the first Duke to win the award since T.J. McConnell in 2011. To do so, he will have to defeat fellow Duke and freshman standout Isiaha Mike, a three-time Rookie of the Week award honoree. According to Lewis, individual accolades like this are not on his mind.
“It’s something that we hear from people around, but it’s not something I think about personally. I just try to focus on what I can control: going out every night, giving it my all, and trying to put on a show and have the fans enjoy what they’re watching. That’s definitely one thing I haven’t really thought about. I’m the type of person you can tell me I’m one of the favorites, or I’m going to win or whatever, but until it happens – then I’ll believe it … It’s just too much extra pressure to try to think about something like that.”
Added pressure is not necessary for a player that head coach Jim Ferry and the Duquesne Dukes will rely upon as their 2016-2017 season comes to a close. If any late-season magic is to occur, chances are Mike Lewis II will be the one waiving the wand.