The wheels seem to be finally coming off of the Duquesne hype train. The city started to take notice after starting 3-0 in conference play and rattling off 10 straight home wins, but the Dukes have lost four of six and are falling closer to the middle of the pack in the A10.
It ?s hard to get as excited for a 5-4 team, which is why the women ?s team is getting so much attention, finally being recognized as the best basketball team in the city. I don ?t know why this is such a hot take right now. The Duquesne women ?s team has been the best in Pittsburgh for a couple years now. A second trip to the NCAA Tournament in just three years looks probable. If you ?re looking to jump on the bandwagon, their biggest game of the season is tonight at home against Dayton. There ?s plenty of room.
But like I said in my last Duquesne piece, the record is irrelevant. This year is already a success. The Dukes have gone from cellar-dwellers to a threat. Most of the A10 is either taking a step back or staying in neutral, but Duquesne is rising fast. If they make a similar jump next year, they ?ll be contenders.
The lion share of that credit has gone to Keith Dambrot, but let ?s not overlook the guys on the court. It ?s been awhile since the Dukes were able to field three or four guys who have been as good as this year ?s core.
Looking at the top five team leaders in Win Shares (think baseball’s WAR), this year ?s squad is the best in recent memory.
Over the last six seasons, Duquesne had six players have a 3+ Win Share seasons. Micah Mason was the only one to finish in the top 10 in Win Shares in the conference when he finished 10th during the 2015-2016 campaign.
The Dukes have three players who are all but guaranteed to eclipse the 3+ plateau, and Tarin Smith seems to be on a good track to reach that mark as well. Eric Williams Jr. and Mike Lewis II should finish in the conference top 10, and Castro-Cannedy currently holds the 10th spot.
Three of the top four on the team are returning next year (Castro-Cannedy is in his final season). That includes Williams Jr., who is currently leading the A10 in Win Shares. No Duke has lead the conference in Win Shares since Sports-Reference.com started keeping track of the statistic during the 1995-1996 season.
Barring a sudden drop off, the Dukes could be entering next season and the year after that with one of the top three forwards and guards in the league. Imagine telling that to someone 365 days ago.
While Williams Jr. ?s knack from three and ability to grab offensive rebounds has given the offense the complimentary weapon they needed for Lewis II, the defense has taken the bigger leap forward this year. Those days of watching the Dukes squander double-digit leads late every week looks like a thing of the past.
This has been most evident in conference games. Consider the charts below on the team ?s improvement in conference contests to the rest of the A10. In it, I took each team ?s 2017 stats compared them to where they were in 2016. Duquesne, Saint Joseph ?s and Richmond are the only teams who have improved in field goal percentage, defensive rebounds and points allowed. The teams are sorted by opponents field goal percentage in 2017 (left is lowest, right is highest).
The Dukes currently are holding their opponents to a 41.7 FG% in conference play- which is the best in the A10- but they have also taken the biggest jump forward from last year, improving 3.8 percentage points from 2016-2017. They ?re also allowing 7.4 fewer points per game, topped only by Davidson. They’re looking better on the boards too. Last year the Dukes were outrebounded 19 times. That’s only happened five times this season.
But the biggest difference has come from behind the arc. Jim Ferry ?s teams relied on zone defenses too often. The A10 hasn ?t been filled with great perimeter shooters the last five or so years, but they sliced the Dukes up, shooting at a 35.9% clip from downtown. This year, Dambrot ?s team is playing almost exclusively man defense. Now, shooters are converting from three just 28.2% of the time.
They have gone from 232nd in the country to 3rd best in just one year. And they ?re improving as the season progresses. The A10 is only shooting 26.7% from three against the Dukes this year. Last year they made 37.1% of those shots.
Everything is trending the right way for Duquesne. They ?re looking even better than their record indicates, which is why you shouldn’t take it so seriously.
Since conference play began, there has been only one game where the Dukes were simply outclassed (Jan. 17 at Saint Louis). On the flip side, they ?ve only run away with wins twice (Jan. 3 against George Washington and Jan. 6 at Fordham).
That means they ?ve played a half dozen games that really could have gone either way. They ?ve won three. Had they run the table in those games, they ?d be 8-1, in first place in the A10 and trying to make their claim for a tournament berth. Had they lost all six, they ?d be 2-9 and nobody would care about the strides they have made. Six overtimes, a couple of lousy calls and a midcourt pushing match are the differences between those records.
Or to look at it another way, Duquesne went 1-5 in conference play last year in games decided by three points or less. Imagine if they reversed that record and went 5-1 in such games. Ferry might still be the coach, and the program would still be treading water. The record is only skin deep.
Steve tweets after every win that ?winning feels better than losing. ? It does. What feels even better is knowing there is more winning right around the corner.