Dukes’ 2020-21 tentative schedule full of challenges

Courtesy of Duquesne Athletics | Duquesne center Mike Hughes dives for a loose ball during a Dec. 14 win over Radford. Hughes was the only Atlantic 10 player to lead his team in both blocks and steals last season.

Luke Henne | Staff Writer

Nov. 19, 2020

In a year plagued by uniqueness and uncertainty, one thing is inevitable for Keith Dambrot and the 2020-21 Duquesne Dukes: The schedule — despite being fluid and subject to adjustment — will be loaded with marquee opponents and many chances to build a solid postseason resume.

In 2019-20, Duquesne’s 10-2 non-conference record — punctuated by losses to UAB and Marshall following a 10-0 start — was appealing to the eye. However, only two of the 10 teams the Dukes defeated (Radford, Austin Peay) would go on to win 20-plus games. Two of those 10 opponents (VMI, Columbia) both finished the abrupted campaign with less than 10 victories.

Duquesne — who finished last season with a 21-9 record and a sixth-place conference finish prior to the coronavirus pandemic halting all postseason competition — will likely benefit from more challenging competition that this year’s schedule lays out for them.

After accepting an invitation to the University of Louisville’s Wade Houston Tipoff Classic, the Dukes are set to begin the season by participating in a multi-team event at Louisville’s KFC Yum! Center, along with a handful of other strong mid-majors and college basketball bluebloods.

While Duquesne will not get the chance to compete against top-tier competition in host Louisville or the Big East’s Seton Hall Pirates, their three-game trip in Louisville is still littered with games against strong talent.

Following some schedule shuffling, Duquesne will tentatively begin its season with a date with the Little Rock Trojans on Nov. 30. In their first year under the guidance of former NBA first-round pick Darrell Walker, the 2019-20 Trojans won 21 games and were the Sun Belt Conference’s regular-season champions.

Little Rock is no stranger to the NCAA Tournament. In 2015-16, the Trojans earned the conference’s automatic bid, even pulling off a first-round upset of the fifth-seeded Purdue Boilermakers.

After an off-day to regroup, the Dukes will be back at it on Dec. 2 when they face the UNC Greensboro Spartans, who are seeking to win 20-plus games for the fifth consecutive season. A member of the Southern Conference, the Spartans earned the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament in 2018 and came within five points of defeating the Gonzaga Bulldogs. Last season, the Spartans went 23-9 with a 13-5 mark in SoCon play.

Before departing from Louisville, the Dukes will battle the Winthrop Eagles on Dec. 4. The Eagles are fresh off the heels of a season which saw them go 24-10 and earn the Big South Conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, their second bid in the past four years (2017). They return redshirt sophomore forward D.J. Burns Jr — who averaged 12.5 points per game and earned Big South Conference Freshman of the Year honors in 2019-20 — to an already experienced bunch.

After what is sure to be a packed slate in Louisville, the remainder of the Dukes’ non-conference schedule remains very fluid and subject to modification, as will likely be the case with the majority of the season as the ongoing coronavirus pandemic continues to evolve.

Jon Rothstein of CBS Sports had previously reported that Duquesne was set to participate in a four-team event in Indianapolis, joining the Cincinnati Bearcats and Loyola-Chicago Ramblers while searching for a fourth participant. However, Rothstein recently reported that Loyola-Chicago — best remembered for their miracle run to the Final Four in 2018 — withdrew from the event due to a COVID-19 outbreak within its locker room, leaving the event’s overall status in jeopardy.

Cincinnati — a member of the American Athletic Conference — has been one of the country’s most consistent programs over the past decade, having not missed an NCAA Tournament since 2010. This success was highlighted by a 2017-18 campaign which saw the Bearcats go 31-5 — all while playing at Northern Kentucky University’s BB&T Arena — as their home, Fifth Third Arena, underwent renovations. In 2019-20, under the direction of first-year head coach John Brannen — the former head man at Northern Kentucky — the Bearcats went 20-10 and were likely on their way to earning a tenth consecutive ticket to the NCAA Tournament.

When Atlantic 10 play rolls around at the end of December, the Dukes will be well-prepared for the ensuing competition, but that won’t make the journey any easier.

Conference action begins with two road matchups against the Saint Louis Billikens (Dec. 30) and George Washington Colonials (Jan. 2). The Dukes will return to Pittsburgh for back-to-back home games against the Davidson Wildcats (Jan. 5) and Fordham Rams (Jan. 9).

Perhaps the toughest stretch Duquesne will face throughout all of conference play comes in the form of three consecutive games against some of the conference’s most successful programs.

On Jan. 13, the Dukes will travel to Dayton for a meeting with the Flyers, who finished last season with a remarkable 29-2 record and a perfect 18-0 mark in conference play. This game is followed by a Jan. 16 clash with rival St. Bonaventure in Olean, New York.

After two battle-testing road games, the Dukes will host the Rhode Island Rams on Jan. 20. It was the Rams who ended Duquesne’s 5-0 start in Atlantic 10 play last season with a 22-point dismantling of the Dukes.

A trip to the Bronx for a meeting with Fordham (Jan. 27) and a home tilt with the Saint Joseph’s Hawks (Jan. 30) will set the stage for a rematch with Dayton, this time in Pittsburgh, on Feb. 2. The game will be televised nationally on ESPN, marking a testament to the growth the program has made in just under a handful of seasons under Dambrot.

A home meeting with the VCU Rams on Super Bowl Sunday (Feb. 7) precedes a two-game road trip that will see the Dukes get a five-day break before road contests with the George Mason Patriots (Feb. 13) and Davidson Wildcats (Feb. 17).

The Dukes are tentatively scheduled to round out conference action with four consecutive home games against Massachusetts (Feb. 20), George Washington (Feb. 24), La Salle (Feb. 27) and St. Bonaventure (March 3) prior to tipoff at the Atlantic 10 Tournament in Brooklyn on March 10.

However, the schedule left a road matchup with the Richmond Spiders — the preseason favorite to win the conference — to be scheduled at a later date. It was a 73-62 loss to the Spiders this past March that ended up being the Dukes’ final game prior to the cancelation of the season due to the virus’ outbreak.

Due to a construction delay, Duquesne will still have to wait to play home games at the renovated UPMC Cooper Fieldhouse. Last season, the Dukes split their 13 home games between PPG Paints Arena, Kerr Fitness Center (La Roche University’s arena) and UPMC Events Center (Robert Morris University’s gym), winning nine of the contests despite the unique circumstances.

As the situation surrounding Duquesne’s schedule evolves, don’t expect to have any game be set in stone. The circumstances created by the pandemic are certain to wreak havoc on college basketball schedules across the country, and Duquesne’s is certainly no exception.

However, games will still be played, and a season will still be fielded. Despite a schedule that is guaranteed to be loaded with formidable and talented opponents, Duquesne will certainly have the experience and mentality required to win when it matters most — March.