David Borne | Staff Writer
For the first time in years, it’s not definitively clear who is Pittsburgh’s top men’s basketball program. The young 2017-18 season hasn’t been kind to either the Duquesne Dukes or the Pitt Panthers, and both teams are trying to effectively formulate an identity.
Duquesne stands with a record of 2-2, and is coming off of consecutive losses to teams that it should have beaten in Robert Morris and Cornell. As for Pitt, Tuesday’s 71-63 win over High Point improved its record to 3-4, but the Panthers have suffered embarrassing losses this season, as well — including large quantities of fans, as attendance figures at the Petersen Events Center are as low as they have ever been since the building was constructed.
Attendance for Pitt’s game versus High Point on Tuesday was 2,399, which breaks the tally for the smallest crowd at a regular-season game ever at the Petersen Events Center.
The previous mark was set 13 days ago, when 2,685 were on hand to see Pitt’s 70-62 win over UC-Santa Barbara.
With the annual City Game taking place this Friday night, Duquesne has the chance to make a statement. If the Dukes pull out a second-consecutive win this year against the rival Panthers, Duquesne will hold all of the momentum between the two schools. I won’t go as far to say that a win on Friday will be enough to declare Duquesne as the city’s premier program, but it would prove that Duquesne basketball is on the way to challenging Pitt for that title.
A win would put Duquesne in the driver’s seat until at least next season, and act as another massive step in the program’s quest for sustained relevance.
Optimistically, this may be just a monumental rebuilding year for Pitt. The Panthers lost Jamel Artis, Michael Young, Sheldon Jeter and Chris Jones to graduation, as well as Cam Johnson, who transferred to UNC, and now they must start from the ground up.
On the other hand, the program may be on the verge of a pronounced free fall. Five players transferred out of the program following last season, and head coach Kevin Stallings was forced to string together a hodgepodge of 10 new players to fill roster spots for this season. Future reinforcements are even looking shaky, as Pitt’s 2018 recruiting class is rather underwhelming.
That being said, Duquesne is in a similar predicament. With five new faces of their own suiting up this season for the Dukes, and with a roster battered by injuries, it hasn’t exactly been a pleasant season on the Bluff thus far, either. However, while Pitt’s program is seemingly on an alarming decline, Duquesne’s is on the rise.
The Dukes already have a solid young core in junior Tarin Smith, sophomore Mike Lewis II, and freshmen Eric Williams Jr. and Tydus Verhoeven. Once the five transfers who are sitting out this season (Tavian Dunn-Martin, Mike Hughes, Craig Randall II, Marcus Weathers and Frankie Hughes) are eligible, Keith Dambrot has a sharp roster intact. Throw in the preponderance of height and potential skill that the 2018 recruiting class brings, and Duquesne could be dangerous in the Atlantic 10 within the next few seasons.
As much fun as it is for the campus, winning this year’s City Game won’t do much for the present. Frankly, winning it didn’t do much last year except provide a bright spot for another disappointing campaign.
What it could do, though, is help Dambrot to continue to build positive momentum around the program.
Since the non-conference schedule was revealed, Dambrot has stressed the importance of building a winning culture on the Bluff, and taking down Pitt would help to accelerate that process.
Duquesne hasn’t beaten Pitt twice in a row since 1980. By no means is it an easy task for a small school like Duquesne to take down what has consistently been a top basketball program like Pitt. However, if it wins this year, considering the amount of talent that will suit up for Duquesne next season, the Dukes could be on the verge of setting up a City Game winning streak of their own.
It won’t be an easy game to win, but the Dukes have a shot. It’s more than fair to assume that they can win next year, as well, and even beyond that. Rattling off a number of wins against Pitt could put Duquesne on the map for local recruits. Success, and city domination, may eventually sway Pittsburgh area talent toward the Bluff instead of in the direction of Oakland.
With all of that being said, by no means is this a “must-win” game for Duquesne. Regardless of the outcome, Duquesne is still on the right track. A loss would be disappointing, but excused. A win, though, would be just another building block to lay on top of the foundation that Dambrot already has in place.
It’s impossible to define an entire season by one non-conference rivalry game, but the game could be a fun turning point to remember from this season.
A glimpse of what could just be the reality in the future.
“Duquesne. The best team in the city.” Wouldn’t that be fun to say?