PITTSBURGH, Pa. – Duquesne’s Steel City Tribute on Saturday was supposed to be a celebration of Pittsburgh’s rich sports history and quite frankly the program’s, too.
Everyone showed up for the joyous occasion but the Dukes.
Visiting Fordham led by double-digits 13 minutes into the contest and by as much as 26 before the final horn sounded, handing Duquesne its most disappointing loss of the season, 80-57. The defeat dropped the Dukes below .500 in conference play for the first time all season and represented a 46-point swing since the teams’ first meeting.
It’s a far cry from where the Dukes stood three short weeks ago. Following a 95-89 double-overtime victory over George Mason on Jan. 20, they were 5-2 in the A-10 and the talk of the league. That’s no longer the case. Duquesne is just 1-5 in its last six games, tumbling all the way to seventh in the league standings.
The buzz around the program after George Mason was at a fever pitch, and just maybe it was premature. The Dukes are better than years past, but the idea the present squad was suddenly one of the top teams in the league was greatly exaggerated. Duquesne has its warts, and the seven-game winning streak, the win over San Francisco, and the hot start to conference play seemed to mask those deficiencies. Those flaws have resurfaced in the last six games.
Opposing coaching staffs have identified the Dukes’ weaknesses, and teams seeing Duquesne for the second time have made adjustments. Opponents are scheming to put more pressure on the guards and force other positions to produce. For example, Fordham face-guarded or denied the three guard spots at all times, whether inside the three-point line or 40 feet from the basket. Duquesne’s guards struggled to adjust or find creative ways of getting open. The quartet of Renee Castro-Caneddy, Mike Lewis II, Eric Williams Jr., and Tarin Smith were a combined 10-37 (.270) from the field against the Rams and scored just 31 points.
With teams focusing to take away the guards, that puts pressure on the Duquesne bigs, where the production outside of Jordan Robinson has been nearly non-existent. Chas Brown has failed to score in two games, and Tydus Verhoeven is more of a defensive presence at this point in his young career. Marko Krivacevic’s insertion into the starting lineup failed to provide a jolt, either—he had two turnovers and two fouls in less than four minutes. Until the Dukes’ post players put pressure on opposing defenses, teams will continue to extend their pressure beyond the arc.
Third, Freshman Eric Williams Jr. has not shot the ball well either during the team’s three-game skid. He’s just 4-22 from three during that stretch and averaging less than 10 points per contest. Additionally, he only logged one rebound Saturday, his lowest output of the season and a far cry from his season average of nine. The Michigan native has been superb this season, but this recent slide suggests he might have hit the freshman wall. He’s talented enough to play out of this funk but hardships are expected out of any young player.
And finally, the Dukes have reverted back to their old defensive ways from earlier in the season. They’ve surrendered 80 or more points in three straight games, and they’re 3-8 this season when allowing opponents to score 70 or more points. Dayton and Fordham shot a combined 62 percent against Duquesne and held a +18 advantage in the paint, signaling they were getting easy looks inside, which they were.
Head coach Keith Dambrot stressed the importance of not panicking in his postgame press conference Saturday.
“My job now is to motivate our guys without making it a catastrophe and try to get them back,” Dambrot said. “We just didn’t play very good. I’m not going to panic. I’ve been through this enough. I’ve got to build the foundation for winning, to making this a championship level team.”
The 59-year old coach suggested the only way he knows how to turn things around going forward is by working.
“Every time I’ve run into trouble in my life, the only thing I know to do is put my head down and go to work,” Dambrot said.
Dambrot elaborated on his comment, simplifying how the Dukes can correct their issues by getting back to the basics. The players will ultimately take cues from their leader.
“So I’m probably going to push them a little bit more than they’ve been pushed in the last two to three weeks, without being nasty,” Dambrot said. “Just go back to hard work. Just blue collar, Pittsburgh work.”
A five-day break in the schedule has come at the most opportune time. The Dukes have fallen back to earth. Their bubble has burst. Now it’s time to go back to working on the things that made them a big story in the first place.