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Duquesne Basketball

Defense Gives Dukes a Fighter’s Chance

Defense Gives Dukes a Fighter’s Chance

PITTSBURGH, Pa. – Duquesne won its fourth straight game Wednesday night despite a lackluster effort.

The Dukes seemed to be going through the motions for much of the first half, and although their energy picked up in the second half, they never appeared to be fully engaged against winless Mississippi Valley State. Emphasis on winless.

Combine that with the Duquesne players wrapping up finals for the falls semester—Mike Lewis II took his last final yesterday—and it’s easy to see why the Dukes might have been overlooking the hapless Delta Devils.

Mike Lewis II gaurds Nate Nahirny (22) as the Duquesne Duke took on Mississippi Valley State December 13, 2017 — DAVID HAGUE

But there is one big takeaway from Wednesday’s victory: the Dukes are vastly improved on defense compared to the start of the season. Heck, even three games ago.

Keith Dambrot built his teams at Akron on defense. Only once in 13 years did the Zips allow more than 70 points per contest—his final year. Through nine games, Duquesne is holding opponents to a paltry 63 points per contest, tops in the Atlantic 10, and only three opponents have score more than 70 points. Last night was the first time since December of 1968 the Dukes held back-to-back opponents to under 50 points.

Now, an argument can be made the Dukes’ schedule has lacked quality opponents outside of Robert Morris, Pitt and Cornell. In fact, most of the computer systems rank Duquesne’s strength of schedule among the worst in the country. But fans on the Bluff need to think long-term.

Dambrot has frequently stated in his post-game comments if a team can defend, they’ve got a chance to be in ball games. He’s preached good habits, which the Dukes are demonstrating—last night withstanding—and playing at a championship-level on defense. Following the win over Delaware State, the 59-year old coach said they were, “functional defensively,” indicating they’re far from a finished product. But with the strides Duquesne has made in the last two weeks, it at least has a puncher’s chance against better opponents.

The team defense continues to improve each game, especially on the weak side and defending the pick-and-roll. Big men Chas Brown and Jordan Robinson have been great in hedging the high-ball screen and redirecting the ball handler. The on-the-ball pressure from the guards has intensified, and the Dukes are more consistent at clogging the lane and cutting off penetration.

Zach Snyder (32) guards Kaleb Allison (32) as the Duquesne Dukes took on Mississippi Valley State December 13, 2017 — DAVID HAGUE

Duquesne still has its warts, though, a term Dambrot used in Wednesday’s press conference. The Robert Morris and Pitt games are probably the most telling of what to expect from the Atlantic 10 schedule. The Dukes will struggle with bigger, more athletic guards, and their bigs have had issues staying out foul trouble against taller opponents. Compared to early in the season, they’re more equipped to work through these issues, i.e., they have more depth.

Duquesne has won just 21 league games in the last five seasons, and the Dukes were predicted to finish last this season by opposing coaches. As a whole, the Atlantic 10 has underperformed in the non-conference slate; the league only has three wins against Top 50 teams and only four teams are better than .500 through the first month of the season.

The Dukes will still probably finish in the bottom half of the conference standings, but with the defense playing at the level it is, expect Duquesne to be in more games than anticipated. That’s more than fans could have asked for this year.

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker

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