Spencer Thomas | Sports Editor
In this era of college sports, it has become increasingly difficult to maintain talent from year to year. That’s what is so exceptional about the group Head Coach Dan Burt brings to the court this season. Nearly EVERYONE comes back.
Preseason accolades favor the Dukes in a way they haven’t in years. Despite an 8-8 record in the Atlantic-10 Conference last season, the coach’s poll slotted them fifth in the conference, and they even received a first-place vote.
“It was nice to talk about for 30 minutes. We moved on.”
Burt sees his team as capable of achieving even more than that.
“Our expectations are greater than being fifth,” he said. “Our expectations are to win 22, 23 games and be in the postseason. Our aspirations are to win 24, 25 games and be in the NCAA tournament.”
Leading the returning starters is Preseason All-Conference guard Megan McConnell. She returns for her fourth year on the Bluff having been named to the preseason all conference team.
She was one of two players in all of Division I to record multiple triple-doubles last season, the other being Iowa’s superstar Caitlin Clark.
To meet these expectations, McConnell has grown in the offseason both as a leader and physically.
“Megan has worked incredibly hard in the weight room to change her body,” Burt said. “She looks like a pro. She’s added a significant amount of muscle.”
Joining her at the guard position for the fourth year running is Tess Meyers, who brings a ton of danger from beyond the arc.
Precious Johnson returns to establish a presence in the paint, where her ability to block shots has made her a defensive stalwart. Burt says that the biggest thing Johnson can improve on is her aggression on the court. He described what he’s told her to do.
“Precious, if you want to achieve all your team goals and individual goals, you’re going to have to be real nasty, and you’re going to have to have a mean streak,” Burt told her. “If that can be consistently applied in games, watch out.”
As high as he is on Johnson, Burt emphasized the strength of his paint play is the package of her and Ayana Townsend. The pair combine to average two blocks and 15 points per game. The depth at that position can be deployed to wear out opposing teams over the course of 40 minutes.
“We think that our 1-2 punch in the best in the league,” Burt said.
Despite keeping the same core of players, it’s not all the same old tricks for Burt and his staff.
“We’re going to play a different way this year,” he said. “We’re going to play with a faster pace on offense, and on defense we’re going to put pressure on people.”
He continued with a bold teaser for Duquesne’s fans, and maybe their opponents too.
“I don’t want to give away a whole lot before the season begins, but you’re going to see a different type of team than you’ve seen in the past.”
The players have been together for so long and get to watch as the outside begins to take notice. Burt says that brings about some swagger.
“There’s a big amount of confidence but we haven’t done anything,” Burt said. “We haven’t been in the postseason in five or six years.”
The returning group is joined by several additions from the transfer portal. Among them is Jerni Kiaku, who has moved north from North Carolina Central.
Burt called her “probably the most explosive athlete I’ve been with in here in 17 years.” Kiaku was the leading scorer among freshmen in the MEAC, scoring 10.7 PPG and snatching 1.4 steals per game. She put up double digit point games 15 times last year for the Eagles. She posted a career-high 25 points on Jan. 14 against South Carolina State, and won MEAC Rookie of the Week six times last year. Jerni will bring scoring and depth to the backcourt for the Dukes this year.
Burt also singled out Raymi Couëta and Gabby Grantham-Medley as freshmen who could earn roles this year.
The season starts with a three-game road trip to Princeton, Niagara and Howard. The opening night matchup with the Tigers will be a massive opportunity for the Dukes to measure themselves against some of the nation’s best. The Tigers won 24 games last season, won the Ivy League, and advanced to the round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament.
They’re known for a controlled and slow pace of play that runs counter to what Burt expects from his team. He sees the winner of that game as the team who can impose their style on the other. He says they’ll need around 65 points to escape New Jersey with a victory.
The home opener isn’t any less of a high-stakes game. The Dukes welcome Pitt to Cooper Fieldhouse and look to snap their two-game skid in the City Game rivalry. Burt’s excitement for the game is palpable.
“We’re hoping to have maybe the largest crowd we’ve ever had for a women’s basketball game here at Duquesne. It’s going to be a fun night,” he said. “Not only are they and our team looking forward to it, but the girls basketball community in Western PA is.”