PITTSBURGH — Tonight at PPG Paints Arena, in the 86th playing of the City Game, one team will win.
That much, of course, should be obvious. College basketball’s current rules don’t allow for ties, and though Duquesne is low on healthy bodies, a forfeit does not seem like it’s in the cards.
So there will be a winner and someone will take home the mostly innocuous-looking trophy that spent 15 of the last 16 years in the lobby of the Petersen Events Center.
But there won’t be a ton on the line on Friday.
For the first part, there’s not much sizzle to the rivalry, even though Duquesne just beat Pitt last year. Ryan Luther is the only local scholarship player on either squad and he’s one of two Pitt players that have ever played against Duquesne.
The Dukes have had nearly as much turnover. Just Rene Castro-Caneddy, Mike Lewis II and Tarin Smith are expected to be in the starting lineup from the team that beat Pitt a year ago.
So for most of the players, this will be their first time experiencing the City Game.
Then there’s the fact that no game will matter much for either team this year. As the Dukes and Panthers rebuild under Keith Dambrot and Kevin Stallings, both teams have struggled and are expected to struggle throughout the season.
Both teams were picked to finish last in their respective conferences and both would be considered long shots for any type of postseason play. So like any other game for Duquesne or Pitt this season, the end result won’t mean that much.
What’s important for both teams this year is laying down the fundamentals. The coaches want to establish work ethic, discipline, and the basics of the offensive and defensive schemes. Accomplishing those goals will mean more in the future than winning eight games versus 10 or 12.
That’s why both teams have stuck with a man-to-man defense throughout. Duquesne, which has five players sitting out due to transfer rules and another four hurt, has been running it with six or seven guys that are ragged by the end of games. Pitt has bodies, but has played some opponents that have practically begged for a zone or a full-court press.
But neither coach has relented in their pursuit of fundamentals.
“I don’t want to play a lot of zone, because when we get good, I don’t want to play a lot of zone, anyway,” Dambrot said on Monday. “Why build something that you’re really just piecemealing it.”
Dambrot’s comments echoed those made by Stallings after his team’s first win of the season against UC Santa Barbara.
“It’s tempting, because you want to win the game, and then you start making short-term decisions,” Stallings said. “We need to learn the fundamentals of what we’re trying to do before I try to fix problems for them.”
So, expect to see a lot of man-to-man defense, at the very least, at PPG Paints Arena, along with a few talented youngsters making their City Game debuts.
Marcus Carr, Shamiel Stevenson and Parker Stewart have all made positive contributions for Pitt as true freshman, as have Tydus Verhoeven and Eric Williams, Jr. for the Dukes.
If the rivalry is going to rebuild itself into relevancy, it will need at least one of the teams to take a step forward so that losing matters. The best chance at that happening will be the development of the youth on display.