I fear no man: Dukes ready for Illini

Brentaro Yamane | Multimedia Editor | After an upset against BYU on Thursday, senior guard Jimmy Clark III and the rest of the team have been bonding and preparing for Saturday's game against Illinois

Spencer Thomas & Matthew Theodros | Sports Editor & Staff Writer

There’s no rest in March. After Duquesne’s historic upset victory over BYU on Thursday, focus shifts to their next opponent. The Dukes will face third-seeded Illinois at 8:40 p.m. in Omaha, an opponent who trampled the Morehead State Eagles, 85-69, on Saturday.

Illinois has made four consecutive tournament appearances with three wins in that stretch. They are looking to get past the tournament’s first weekend since they played in the 2005 NCAA Championship. 

The Fighting Illini are winners of five straight and head into Saturday as 11-point favorites. 

Their 27-8 season was anchored by a high-octane offense that ranked ninth in the country with 84.4 points per game.

It is led by Terrence Shannon Jr., who could have been a first-team All-American had he not missed eight games due to legal issues that are still ongoing. He finished the NCAA season as the nation’s third-leading scorer and an All Big-Ten selection, and two of Illinois’ losses came in his absence.

Marcus Domask had 12 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists in his first career triple-double and the first in NCAA tourney since Ja Morant accomplished the feat in 2019. The Dukes’ defensive attack needs to make him uncomfortable and prioritize getting the ball out of his hands, which Duquesne’s aggressive guard play excels at. Domask emphasized how Duquesne’s steal-happy guards are something that he and Shannon need to be aware of.

The size disparity is an advantage Duquesne must capitalize on as Illinois lacks height in many rotations compared to some of Head Coach Keith Dambrot’s bigger lineups. Attacking the rim and crashing the offensive glass should be emphasized, especially for the big men and wings like Fousseyni Drame and Jakub Necas. The most effective frontcourt player as of late for Illinois has been reserve forward Dain Dainja who emerged during Illinois’ run to a conference championship and dominated Morehead State with 21 points on a flawless 9-9 shooting. 

David Dixon is one Duke who will be counted on to control Dainja.

“He is really strong. That’s a big challenge for me, and I know I’m ready for it,” Dixon said. “I’ve practiced so long. I’ve been through a lot, and I fear no man.”

Keith Dambrot compared the Illini to Thursday’s opponent, BYU. Both are top-10 in scoring and will require Duquesne to control the pace.

“Similar type of game plan for us. We just can’t allow the game to get up into the 90s and 80s,” Dambrot said. “We just have to grind it out.”

The biggest weakness in the Illini game is their defense. While having talented individual defenders, they have struggled for the majority of the year, finishing with a mediocre 234th in opponent points per game at 73.8. 

The star guards Dae Dae Grant and Jimmy Clark III need to put pressure on the opposing backcourt, making them exert energy and open the court for the bigs and wings to get involved. The opportunity to do that against a star like NBA prospect like Shannon is something that excites Clark.

“That definitely motivates me,” Clark said. “Just to be able to show that I can compete at the highest level there.”

That marks one of several differences between the two programs. While Duquesne has something to prove against a higher seed, Illinois is a team that has much bigger goals in mind and doesn’t draw motivation from the opponent in front of it.

“I don’t think we really need any motivation,” Domask said. “We’re in the tournament. Every game is a good game. So, the motivation for us is already there.”

It is a matchup of conference champions, which means both sides have spent nearly two weeks on the road, alternating between hotels and 18,000-seat arenas. Away from class, campus and even their own beds, the Dukes are making the most of their time together.

“It’s been really fun,” said freshman Jake DiMichele. “These past couple weeks really brought us together as a team.” 

When they aren’t at the hotel, Duquesne is usually out to eat. They enjoyed a team dinner at a sports bar in Omaha last night, knowing it could be one of their last as a team.

“It’s been all about making memories,” said team captain Kareem Rozier. “This is something that we won’t ever get to get back.”

At the hotel, the main forms of entertainment involve video games, specifically NBA 2K and Call of Duty. Tre Williams, who Rozier called the worst at video games on the team, reiterated the joy that these last couple weeks have been, on and off the court.

“Just cracking jokes with the guys. We’re just making jokes and just laughing nonstop,” he said. “I feel like that’s the best part about this whole situation right now.”

Dambrot mentioned connections being built off the court may help them on it.

“In a lot of ways, it’s really good because you have nobody else but each other. You’re pretty isolated, and you’re pretty concentrated on basketball,” Dambrot said. “We played well with it, so maybe we ought to stay out more often.”