Five takeaways from Duquesne’s basketball schedule

Courtesy of Pittsburgh Sports Now | Dukes guard Mike Lewis II prepares to shoot a 3-pointer against Pitt in the 2017 City Game at PPG Paints Arena. Pitt won 76-64.
Courtesy of Duquesne Athletics | Keith Dambrot led DU to a four-game win improvement within the A-10 during his first season with the Dukes in 2017-18. Now, he must focus his attention on continuing to elevate his program on both the regional and national levels.

Adam Lindner | Sports Editor

Sept. 13, 2018

The Atlantic 10 released its men’s basketball schedule on Sept. 5, effectively completing Duquesne’s 2018-19 slate (barring select game times that have yet to be announced). Now, Dukes hoops fans are able to view their team’s 31-game schedule in its entirety, beginning on Nov. 10 versus William & Mary, and ending March 9 against Dayton.

The team’s non-conference portion of the schedule is significantly improved from last year’s, with dates versus Notre Dame, an improved Pitt squad, 2018 NCAA tournament team Marshall and reigning NIT champion Penn State circled on the calendar. Last season, Pitt was Duquesne’s only opponent from a Power 5 conference, and the Dukes’ most noteworthy non-league win likely came by way of a 67-65 victory on Dec. 22 over San Francisco at the Las Vegas Classic. This season, Keith Dambrot’s team will have several more opportunities to capture milestone victories prior to the beginning of A-10 play.

Dambrot managed to win five of his first seven conference games as Duquesne’s coach last season, eventually leading the team to a 7-11 finish and a No. 10 finish in the 14-team league. Three close losses within an 11-day stretch in late January deflated much of the momentum that the Dukes possessed earlier on in conference play last year, which is something the team should potentially be wary of this season — home games versus Saint Louis (Jan. 23), VCU (Jan. 26) and Rhode Island (Jan. 30) precede a February that sees Duquesne play at home only twice, amplifying the importance of those contests.

Of note is the omission of nearby rival Robert Morris from the non-conference schedule. The Dukes and Colonials have played each other in each of the past 15 seasons and 28 times overall, with Duquesne leading the all-time series 16-12. However, since the 2010-11 season, the Dukes are 1-7 against their neighbor from Moon Township, including a 66-59 Colonials win last season at the Palumbo Center. For the time being, the Nov. 19, 2017 meeting between the two teams will serve as the most recent memory of the schools meeting on the hardwood.

Five takeaways from DU’s basketball schedule

1.) Early opponents aren’t cupcakes:

Within the grand scheme of Division I college basketball, William & Mary, Illinois-Chicago and Radford aren’t exactly household names. An unread college hoops fan may not know that Radford represented the Big South in the NCAA tournament last season, or that William & Mary managed to score 114 points in a win against eventual NCAA tournament team (and 2018 Duquesne opponent) Marshall on Nov. 29, 2017. Neither of these feats are spectacular, by any means, but they do go to show that Duquesne’s first few opponents shouldn’t be overlooked.

In fact, in comparison to Duquesne’s first three opponents last season — St. Francis (NY), VMI and Robert Morris, — William & Mary, Illinois-Chicago and Radford won about eight more games on average during the 2017 season when compared to the Dukes’ foes from early last season, and that’s while the Dukes’ 2018 opponents were playing against generally stronger competition. College basketball statistician Ken Pomeroy’s ‘adjusted efficiency margin’ algorithm ranked William & Mary 169th of 351 D-I teams to finish last season, with UIC at 182 and Radford at 170. For reference, St. Francis finished 313th, while VMI ranked 331st and Robert Morris 253rd, respectively.

In short, the first few games that the Red & Blue will play this season won’t be against any “cupcakes” — or Robert Morris.

Courtesy of Pittsburgh Sports Now | Dukes guard Mike Lewis II prepares to shoot a 3-pointer against Pitt in the 2017 City Game at PPG Paints Arena. Pitt won 76-64.

2.) The City Game just keeps getting better:

In 2016, the Dukes topped Pitt for the first time since the 2000-01 season, giving a miserable team something to hang its hat on — but only until it turned around and lost to Robert Morris the following week.

Then, last season, the Dukes lost to a miserable Pitt team (the Panthers went winless in ACC play!), setting up the ultimate rubber match at PPG Paints Arena on Nov. 30. While 2016 was Jim Ferry’s last season leading the Dukes, 2017 was Kevin Stallings’ final season in Oakland.

Now, after starting over with clean slates, both Dambrot and new Pitt coach Jeff Capel figure to have their programs back on the road to relevance. The Dukes boast a whopping 12 players on their current roster who’ve never played for Duquesne before, and most of Pitt’s leading scorers from last season return to join top-100 recruit Trey McGowens for the Panthers.

With Dambrot and Capel now leading their respective programs, the City Game figures to grow exponentially more polarizing with each year that it’s played for the foreseeable future.

3.) A-10 home opener, Jan. 9 vs. Fordham, a must-win:

Duquesne opens its 2018 home conference slate against perennial cellar-dweller Fordham on Jan. 9, and then hosts a rejuvenated Saint Joseph’s team just three days later. In a conference full of uncertainty, it’s vital for a young team like Duquesne to win the games that it’s supposed to win. Not only is Duquesne supposed to beat Fordham, but the game between the two teams is Duquesne’s first home conference game of the new season, and a home loss to the lowly Rams would do nothing to help the Dukes begin their conference slate off on the right foot.

Last season, Duquesne beat Fordham, 64-41, on the road in early January, but lost an ugly 80-57 decision at the hands of the same team only about one month later at the Palumbo Center. The game served as the Dukes’ third straight loss in what would become a season-long six-game losing streak.

If Duquesne hopes to improve upon its 7-11 finish in the A-10 from a season ago, then topping Fordham at home on Jan. 9 is a good place to start.

Courtesy of U. of Memphis Athletics | Leonard Randall II, pictured during his time at Memphis, is eligible for Duquesne this season after sitting out a year due to NCAA transfer rules.

4.) February will make or break the Dukes’ season:

Perhaps the biggest Duquesne-related revelation to come out of the A-10 men’s basketball schedule release was the daunting February that the Dukes face: Of the seven games that Duquesne will play during February, only two will be at home (Feb. 6 vs. St. Bonaventure and Feb. 16 vs. George Washington).

The Dukes will face Dayton (Feb. 2), Fordham (Feb. 9), La Salle (Feb. 13), George Mason (Feb. 23) and St. Bonaventure (Feb. 27) on the road during February, leaving only three regular season games in early March before the Atlantic 10 Championship begins in Brooklyn, N.Y. on March 13.

Last season, Duquesne lost six consecutive games between Feb. 3 to Feb. 24, decimating its conference record along with any momentum that it had built over the season’s duration. Avoiding a similar losing stretch this year will be absolutely vital if Duquesne wishes to ascend within the conference’s ranks.

5.) March home games could be of extreme importance:

For the first time in a while, Duquesne could be playing some seriously meaningful games late into the season at the Palumbo Center. Saturday home contests against UMass (March 2) and Dayton (March 9) are two of the Dukes’ last few regular season games before conference tournament play, and both have the potential to have serious implications within the A-10.

If Duquesne can win enough over the course of the season to attract strong home crowds, then back-to-back Saturday home games to end the regular season could be some of the liveliest action to hit the Palumbo Center hardwood for some time.

Some of the potentially most important, too.