By Adam Lindner | Staff Writer
Starting four players that didn’t suit up for the Dukes last year, Coach Jim Ferry’s squad turned over a new leaf on Friday night with a season opening 65-60 win over Loyola (Md.) at the A.J. Palumbo Center.
Starting guards Tarin Smith, Emile Blackman and Mike Lewis II all made their first regular season appearances in a Duquesne uniform on Friday evening along with forward Isiaha Mike.
While what began as an uninspiring performance took a turn for the best, the growing pains of a new-look team were still prevalent. After Loyola jumped out to a 9-2 lead, Mike Lewis steadied the tide with a drawn foul and went to the line for a pair of free throws – a potential problem area for the Dukes as they shot 65 percent from the charity stripe in their debut.
As assertive as Mike Lewis has been thus far, he’s become much more adept at fouling than he has at drawing them. In both the scrimmage against Division II Mansfield and the opener against Loyola, he has provided an energetic spark on the offensive end, only to be corralled to the bench early on both occasions as he got into quick foul trouble.
Keeping Mike Lewis on the floor for longer periods of time will be vital for a team missing two key pieces that were expected to contribute substantially. According to Ferry, grad transfer Kale Abrahamson is out for “probably six weeks” with a broken hand, and sophomore Josh Steel is out indefinitely for an undisclosed violation of team rules.
With such dependency upon freshmen, Duquesne will undoubtedly need grad transfer Emile Blackman to continue to be the leader that he proved he could be on Friday. Heard vocally throughout the game, Blackman provided a strong example for his younger teammates to follow.
“I’ll be completely honest, it’s more them talking to me [during timeouts in the final minutes],” Ferry said. “To hear Emile’s voice, Tarin’s voice, you knew that they were locked in to get a stop, and they did. They made some big hustle plays.”
The leadership of Blackman – supplemented by superb play – will do wonders for this young team. Projected to be the highest scoring DI transfer by Sports Illustrated, much will be required of Blackman on both ends of the floor if this team is to succeed.
Blackman recorded eight points and two steals in the win over Loyola. However, Blackman followed that with a scoreless performance on the road in the 82-74 loss to Penn State, so he averaged just 4.0 points per game through the first two. The Red & Blue will look for the graduate transfer to become increasingly more involved in their offense moving forward.
While Blackman led vocally, Tarin Smith also played well in his first college action since March 2015, leading the Dukes in scoring with 13. He currently leads the team with 14.7 points per game.
Coming off of knee surgery, Smith held his own as he handled the ball well and played full-court defense on opposing point guard Andre Walker most of the night. A glimpse of what’s to come was displayed in a chase-down block by Smith that electrified the crowd.
“Tarin’s not even close to being himself yet,” Ferry said. “I mean, he sat out all of last year as a transfer, and then he has had no practices leading up to these games. So he had to recover from the surgery, and then he’s practiced like eight times, and now we’re just kind of throwing him in the fire. That’s the only way he’s going to get [acclimated].”
While Smith is still in the process of acclimating himself, Spencer Littleson played to the delight of many in his college debut. Shooting confidently, Littleson played 21 minutes and scored eight points, including the only two made 3-point shots by the Dukes – a positive statistic for Littleson, but potentially troublesome for the team as a whole.
“I don’t think we shot the ball particularly well today at all,” Smith said. “Not like we normally do, at least in practice.”
While this team may not shoot as well as last year’s team did, it can rely on much more balanced scoring. Nobody had more than four field goals (Smith was 4-12), and six players had three baskets each (Mike, Darius Lewis, Mike Lewis, Blackman, Nakye Sanders and Littleson).
While balanced scoring is positive, only having nine assists is a sign of poor ball movement — something that needs to be fixed soon.
“We’re not very good right now … It’s a process,” Ferry said. “Playing all these new guys together, it’s a process.”
The Dukes defeated the Saint Francis Red Flash 89-75 on Wednesday night with the help of 26 points from Rene Castro and 23 more from Smith.
A 2-0 record on their home court serves as an encouraging sign for the Dukes as they get used to playing alongside one another. Duquesne will host Canisius on Nov. 18 before taking on No. 2 Kentucky on ESPN on Nov. 20.