It ?s been awhile since Duquesne has played a game as intriguing as tonight ?s against VCU. Sure, they ?ve had a handful of big wins over the last couple years — most notably beating Pitt in the 2016 City Game — but this is the first time in years where the Dukes are going into a conference game that has some real impact on their season.
Duquesne currently sits at 3-0 in Atlantic 10 play and 12-4 overall. Not too shabby for the first year of Keith Dambrot ?s rebuild. Outside of a three game skid in late November and early December, it ?s consistently been the best case scenario for his first year on the job. And while it is only January, Duquesne is gearing up for a semi-important conference game, and a winnable one at that.
This isn ?t a particularly strong VCU team. Duquesne has some momentum behind them. 4-0 isn ?t as crazy as it seemed just a month ago. The Dukes ? defense is playing with a lot of energy, and VCU has the best offense out of any team that they ?ve seen this year. It ?s time to see if this team can play man-to-man with one of the best offenses the A10 has to offer, and if they score the 70-something points they ?ll likely need to win.
But let ?s make one thing clear: even if the Dukes get blown out, that does not invalidate the strides Dambrot and company have made over the past couple weeks.
This season was validated on Dec. 30 when the Dukes got into Dayton ?s literal face at midcourt and didn ?t back down. Every coach, player and columnist likes to talk about a team ?s winning culture. Chas Brown and his teammates showed it that day. They stood up for themselves and got the win.
“The one thing it shows is Duquesne’s not going to get punked anymore, ? Dambrot said after the game. ?…We ?re not going to take anything. We ?re not going to be the step-children of the league. ?
It was the first sign of life from Duquesne after five years of being the conference ?s doormat. They proved it wasn ?t a freak trap game four days later when they handled George Washington. They proved it again three days later by handing Fordham their most lopsided defeat in the history of their rivalry and allowing the fewest points in a game since the Carter administration.
When they were 2-3, Dambrot wondered out loud if the Dukes would win again this season. Now we have to wonder if they will ever have another game under him where there isn ?t at least some hope of winning.
Those preseason projections that put the Dukes in the A10 cellar are not aging well. According to TeamRankings.com, the Dukes have a roughly one in four chance of a 20 win season, which would double their win total from last year. They have a better shot of finishing in the top four (20%) than the bottom four (14%). They finished in the bottom four every year of Ferry ?s tenure.
Steve penned a great piece last week on how the Dukes are more than the sum of their parts this season. He ?s right, and Dambrot deserves a ton of credit for getting the most out of his young, occasionally shorthanded team, but there are finally some good blocks to build with. This isn ?t a fluke season. This is the new Duquesne basketball.
Eric Williams Jr. is playing beyond his years and his 6 ?5 ?- 195 lb. frame. Duquesne has swung and missed in trying to find a rebounder like him for years. Darius Lewis. TySean Powell. Nakye Sanders. They each had their moments, but never put together a 16 game stretch like Williams Jr. did in his first 16 games. He ?s a ball magnet, averaging virtually a double-double a game (14.3 PPG, 9.8 RPG overall, and 15 PPG and 9 RPG in conference play).
For years, the Dukes were dominated on the glass in conference games. Three games in, Williams Jr. is creating a new narrative. The Dukes are averaging 38 boards a game to their opponents’ 29.3.
Williams Jr. isn ?t the only guy making a difference up front. Dambrot said freshman Tydus Verhoeven is the second best shot-blocker he ?s ever coached back on Nov. 19 (the best was Zeke Marshall at Akron). He ?s averaging two blocks a game despite limited minutes and some difficulties staying out of foul trouble. Jordan Robinson is having a career year. Brown has been a huge boost and is getting healthier. Kellon Taylor is a quality role player.
On the offensive side, Mike Lewis II is hitting his stride. His season stats may be a bit off after a pair of goose eggs from the floor back in November, but he ?s taking a step forward, especially on defense. He snagged the last spot in the preseason third All-Conference team this year and will be even higher in 2018. And while we ?re talking about players who decided to not abandon ship after Ferry was fired, a now healthy Tarin Smith has shined as Duquesne ?s sixth man.
And then there ?s next year ?s recruitment class. It ?s the tallest in school history, consisting of 6-11 small forward Gavin Bizaeu, 6-9 power forward Amari Kelly, 6-10 power forward Austin Rotroff and 6-11 center Dylan Swingle. Duquesne has never had a recruitment class of two players listed at 6 ?9 ? before. Now they ?re getting four. Rotroff and Swingle are three star recruits and among the best prospects in Ohio. Bizaeu is consistently ranked as one of the 10 best high school players in Indiana. They ?re not just big. They ?re good.
This is a talented, young squad that should only get better. They might be overachieving and probably will take a step back once they square up with Rhode Island or St. Bonaventure, but that shouldn ?t kill the buzz around this team.
Which brings us back to Tuesday night. The A10 is in the middle of a power shift. For years, VCU was near the top and Duquesne was near the bottom. Right now, they ?re both somewhere in the middle. If Duquesne can go into Siegel Center and even give the Rams a run for their money, stay excited for what 2018 has to offer. If they can ?t, stay excited for 2019 and beyond.