Understanding Duquesne MBB’s weak non-conference slate

Forward Eric James rises up to dunk at Kentucky on Nov. 20. The Dukes open the 2017-18 campaign on Nov. 11 vs. St. Francis (NY). | Courtesy of Elliott Hess
Courtesy of Elliott Hess | Forward Eric James rises up to dunk at Kentucky on Nov. 20. The Dukes open the 2017-18 campaign on Nov. 11 vs. St. Francis (NY).

Adam Lindner | Sports Editor

Duquesne’s last win versus an AP-ranked team came on Feb. 27, 2014, at No. 10 Saint Louis, yet the Dukes will almost positively not dethrone a Top 25 club during Keith Dambrot’s first year at the helm of the men’s basketball team.

That’s not necessarily a knock on the state of the basketball program. Though Dambrot will need time and patience from Duquesne backers in order to right this ship, the program currently exudes more positive momentum than it has since the days of Ron Everhart and Aaron Jackson.

Instead, it’s a rather straightforward statement, given that the Dukes might not even have the opportunity to play an AP-ranked team at all this season. The non-conference schedule, released on July 27, partnered with the prospective weakness of the Atlantic 10 at large, renders Duquesne’s chances of facing a Top 25 team this season largely improbable.

But for the time being, that’s OK.

According to KenPom.com, last season’s 10-22 team had the nation’s 167th toughest schedule. However, the Dukes ranked 345th in terms of non-conference schedule difficulty – or, depending on how you look at it, the sixth easiest, being that 351 teams competed at the Division I level in 2016-17.

Considering all of the talent lost from last year’s roster and the brief recruiting period that Dambrot had to work with upon arriving as Duquesne’s new coach in late March, a non-conference schedule that includes home dates with the likes of St. Francis (NY), Mississippi Valley State and North Carolina A&T makes sense for the Dukes.

This season, Duquesne will play every game one major injury away from collapsing, as the current team seriously lacks depth and most of the newcomers are developmental projects. Five of the team’s eleven current scholarship players are new to the program, and returning forward Kellon Taylor splits time between the school’s football and basketball teams.

Though the Atlantic 10 is not projected to be as strong as it’s been in years prior, the Dukes will still face quality competition on a nightly basis in league play which will inevitably raise the overall difficulty of their schedule.

Eight of Duquesne’s eighteen conference games will pit the Dukes against teams that played in a postseason tournament last year, not including A-10 favorite St. Bonaventure and an improved Saint Louis squad. The Dukes will have sets of home-and-home games with both teams this season.

While the A-10 may not place as many teams in the NCAA tournament this season as it has previously, scheduling a light non-conference slate is sensible for a new-look team lacking depth, such as the Dukes. Dambrot can begin to develop talent, which he did remarkably well for years at Akron, and begin to prepare for a tough A-10 season.

Additionally, by scheduling only two non-conference games outside of Pittsburgh’s parameters – neutral site contests at the Las Vegas Classic versus San Francisco on Dec. 22 and Southern Illinois on Dec. 23 – fans will have the opportunity to see Duquesne play at the A. J. Palumbo Center a record 19 times this season. A 20th game will be played at PPG Paints Arena on Dec. 1 in the annual City Game against Pitt, Duquesne’s lone Power 5 opponent this season.

Those unhappy with the lackluster non-conference schedule must temper their expectations for Dambrot, as he’ll attempt to compete for a full season in the A-10 with a roster that returns six scholarship players and only 47.7 percent of its scoring.

Having the opportunity to develop talent and inaugurate a fresh, new mindset is imperative in Dambrot’s first year with Duquesne, and a lighter non-conference schedule allows him the opportunity to begin building the cohesive unit that he hopes the Dukes will soon become.

The allure generated last season from beating Pitt was short-lived, as Duquesne turned around and lost to area rival Robert Morris four days later. There’s little to gain from scheduling high-major programs until you can consistently beat lesser opponents.

Since 2010-11, Duquesne is 1-6 versus Robert Morris. Most Duquesne fans tend to dismiss Robert Morris as lesser than Duquesne, but considering how the last seven seasons have gone, only flawed reasoning would allow for such a statement to be made.

On Nov. 19, Robert Morris pays a visit to the Palumbo Center for Duquesne’s third game of the year. Beginning to consistently beat teams like Robert Morris are the steps that need to be taken in order to move up college basketball’s totem pole.

If anything, Duquesne fans should make good on the opportunity to see the new-look Dukes in action this season. The school has proven their commitment to athletics in recent investments, and Dukes fans must do the same if they want to see the men’s basketball program return to legitimacy.

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