Before departing for New York yesterday for the Atlantic 10 tournament, Duquesne coach Jim Ferry -- as well as players Micah Mason, Jeremiah Jones and Dominique McKoy -- met with a few members of the media to discuss the tournament and take a bit of a look back at this season.
Below is a transcript of those conversations. It's lengthy.
What are you expecting?
“I think our guys should have confidence going in. We’ve won four of our last five or three of our last I don’t know what it is [ed. note: it’s three of the last five]. We’ve won a bunch in a row. We’re absolutely playing better. When you talk about tournament play, in my experience and with the success I’ve had, you’ve got to have good guards. We have good guards. Our two guards are playing just as well as any combination in this conference right now. We have a senior that’s been playing the best basketball of his career and playing with a sense of urgency. I think guys have really fallen into their roles and accepted their roles going into tournament play. We feel good. It’s going to be a challenge.”
After going 11-18 in the regular season, is there something refreshing about the conference tournament, with it representing a clean slate?
“What I talk to the guys about is that this is the most exciting time of the year. If you’re a fan of college basketball, whether you’re a player or not, this is it. We’re on a big stage, we’re in Brooklyn, it’s a conference tournament, everyone’s there. I think it’s a big stage. It’s refreshing that the league play is over and now these are the standings. This is it. These are the slots. These are your matchups. When you get to tournament play, a lot more has to do with matchups than what records are, especially in our league. How you match up to teams in our league is vital and you can see that throughout the conference. Obviously we don’t match up well against Davidson. It played out in two games. It’s how do you match up and who do you match up well with? With us and Saint Louis, both sides think we match up pretty well. It’s a good first-round game. It’s going to be a competitive basketball game and I think our guys are excited to get out there and play. This is really about team now – the experience, everybody together around all the other teams. It’s really about creating a special opportunity and special moment for us.”
The route’s not terrible. You’ve got Saint Louis and then George Washington next, another team you split with.
“I’m worried about Saint Louis. You all can talk about that stuff. Like I said to the guys, it’s a one-day-at-a-time approach.”
When you look back, what changed in the last month? The team seemed different.
“Guys really fell into their roles, I think we played more unselfishly as a team and we played defensively more as a unit. I think it just all came together. You’ve got to understand that when you make a change like that mid-year defensively like we did…we get our guys from the summer and we established it in the summer. It just took us longer to figure out. We knew we were going to play both, but we didn’t realize that we needed to play zone. That was a big change and, from that, we had to improve and get better. Then we went from having a long bench and playing a lot of guys – and all the guys we were playing we all young, so there was a development of the youth – to shortening our bench up a little bit. That took some time. A lot of it’s on me, seeing who developed, who didn’t, what pieces fit together. I think we just came along. We’re playing with a lot of confidence, we’re playing at our tempo a lot now in all of our games instead of playing at other teams’ tempo, and that’s really important for us. I think you can see with the group that it’s really coming together.”
Are you entering the tournament with a much different team than you thought you were at the beginning of the year?
“I think so. I thought our approach at the beginning of the year was going to be playing nine guys deep and trying to wear guys out. It just didn’t play out that way. We started with Micah on the point this year because he was the most efficient player in the country and his assist-to-turnover ratio was great. And then DC started out having a great 3-point shooting…he was top five in the country in 3-point shooting. He was No. 1 in the country for a while there. And then we just felt like that wasn’t working to the best and we flipped them back over. That was a change, too. I think we’re going in differently than what I anticipated us being at the start of the season.”
As a coaching staff, is that tough? Or is that a credit to you guys for being able to make those moves?
“I think we did a lot of that. We have nine guys in our program that are either freshmen, sophomores or just new to the program. That’s challenging in and of itself. As a team develops and as a leader, you have to make the hard decisions and we did. We made very tough decisions. We sacrificed a couple of games in there this year, the Saint Francis game being one of them. I decided to make the change right before the Saint Francis game and I knew we were going to struggle in that game because we hadn’t fully committed to it yet. But I said ‘Listen, for us to make a step toward getting better, we’re going to have to make a stand to do it.’ We had to do it. That’s when we switched to zone. It wasn’t good. It was ugly. We got beat at home here pretty good. But we knew we had to build from that point on. It’s tough to make those decisions, but I think the guys have really responded. You guys have been here the whole year and you’ve seen us get better and better. As a coach, that’s what you want out of a program – to get better toward the end of the year. And then you’ve got to remember that we get all of these guys back. That’s pretty exciting for us.”
For all the struggles this team has had this season, they’ve still been able to beat teams like Dayton and GW. Do those kind of results maybe give you some reason to think this team has the potential to go on a run?
“Sure. They should. Dayton was the No. 1 team in the league and you beat them. George Washington, you turned around and beat them. How many games have we won lately? How many games did we win at home in a row? These guys should have confidence. When we’ve played well, we can play with anybody in this conference. We’ve proven that. Even against VCU, when they were playing well and before they lost Briante Weber, we were right there in that game with them, as well. The struggle and the frustrating thing that’s been well documented has been the difference of being on the road. But now we’re not on the road. It’s a neutral site.”
Does that make a difference, it being a neutral site game?
“Absolutely. It’s not one team playing at home who’s better at home statistically. Look at us. Nobody wants to play us at home, except for Davidson. Nobody wanted to play us at home, but on the road, it was different. It’s a neutral site now and that opens it up for everybody.”
How’d you address that with your guys, that it’s a neutral site? Did you discuss it?
“We discussed a lot of things today, more about our approach, focus, confidence, being a team player. This is what it’s all about, really locking in with no distractions and no egos. It’s all about the team right now and who goes into the tournament with the right mindset and right confidence. Those are the teams that can make a run. Teams that have good guards can make runs in the tournament and I think we have two of the better guards in the league.”
How big of a point of emphasis has the conference tournament been for you all late in this season, even going back a few weeks? Has it stood as this sort of ultimate goal?
“The point of emphasis always, and I send the same message every single day to these guys in every one of my programs, is to get better every single day. That’s our goal, to get better every day so that when you get to tournament time, you’re playing your best basketball. I think, as a program, we’ve gotten better and better and better. Now, take away that last game. I don’t know if anybody would have beaten that team in our last game. I think we’ve gotten significantly better. Just looking at our record, we’ve gotten significantly better. Looking at us playing teams we lost to the first time, we’ve gotten better. We send the same message and we continue to send the same message until Wednesday night. Wednesday night, we’re going to play.”
This is a program that hasn’t had much postseason success. What would a win mean?
“I think it would be a great accomplishment for our program to go in and win a tournament game. I haven’t looked up the history because that stuff doesn’t really pertain to helping us win this game, but I believe it. I think it’s also important because we’re going to have a lot of these guys back. That’s what’s going to be really important, to go in and get this tournament experience and hopefully play well in a tournament setting. We have a saying ‘Every champion was once a contender.’ We’ve got to be that guy that contends right now and try to make a run at this tournament.”
Is this program different than it was a year ago at this time? Is there a big difference? Is it in a better place?
“I think so. I think it’s in a much better place. The reason it is in a much better place is we’ve now had two legitimate recruiting classes. Now, we still need two more legitimate recruiting classes to be able to be what the program is really going to be. But I think it’s significantly different. Next year, we’re not going to have nine guys who are freshmen or sophomores or new. We’ll have very few new guys in our program. That’s where your program takes the next steps to where it goes. In a conference like this and at a school like Duquesne, that’s what needs to happen. We’re not the VCUs or the Daytons or the Richmonds of the world. We have to take that step where it takes time. Look at what La Salle and Bonaventure and those teams that had to do to establish things. That’s what you have to do. You have to establish it. With a little bit of patience…and the fans here don’t want to hear it because they’ve had patience. But I’m talking about from me getting here now and building it the right way. We won more games than we won last year in this conference, the conference is a complete bear, we’ve gotten better and we’ve got our nucleus coming back. All of that stuff is where you see a program start to build.”
When you took this over, did you have a three-year, four-year, five-year plan? Did you have an idea of what it would take?
“You never put it on wins and losses in that plan, but yeah, I’ve done it before. It takes a legit five years to establish and look at home many programs it has taken 10 years. UMass, until last year, hadn’t done it since Calipari left. La Salle, Bonnies – you look at all of these schools and the ones that have consistency are the ones that have been better. You have to have that time. It takes five years to establish ‘This is what we are.’ You have recruiting classes that come in to reestablish a program, which then allow you get the next recruiting classes that help you compete to win. That’s where the process is at right now. We have to have that grind and get better. Now, if you want to ask me more directly ‘Are you happy with the season?’ No, I’m disappointed in our season this year. I thought we could have won more games that we didn’t, but it’s still part of the process. When you have these young guys…everybody’s easy when you pick up the schedule and say ‘Okay, we should win that one, that one and that one’ and then all of a sudden these teams come in and ‘Oh.’ Some of those games that we lost, those teams were better than what people thought – the NJITs, the Maryland-Eastern Shores. But with that said, I think it took us a little longer than we were hoping it was going to take this year. But we’re not off by much. You still have these games that you lost by one point, two points that we could have had a winning record this year and everybody would have been like ‘Wow, we’re making strides.’ How close were we to having a winning record? There were free throws, a turnover against Rhode Island, a shot against NJIT. If you look at all of these close games. We’re that close to having a winning record and everybody saying ‘Wow, we’re heading in the right direction.’ As a coach, we know where we’re at and how close we are. We’re this close to having a winning record in the league. If you look at Rhode Island, VCU, Bonaventure in overtime and Saint Louis where we missed 20 free throws. We would be sitting here having a totally different conversation. But “would’ve, could’ve, shoul’ves” don’t matter in college basketball. In building a program and seeing the whole picture, we’re absolutely headed in the right direction. We know where we’re going.”
After three years now, are you convinced this program can win?
“I think we have to get better at everything. We have to make some upgrades to our facilities, we have to upgrade our recruiting and we have to have to get our players better. We have to do everything. My big thing is that if you want to be like the teams that are at the top of this league and are consistently at the top of the league – which are the VCUs, the Daytons, the Richmonds, the St. Joe’s – then you have to do the things they do. And that’s recruit like them, act like them and play like them. We have to do things like that. That’s what you have to do to compete at this level. I think we’re headed in that direction.”
Duquesne fans can expect that in the next couple of years?
“I hope so. It’s a process. We were a heartbeat away from not being in the first round this year. We just have to focus on getting better, getting the program better, getting the players better and moving this forward.”
What are your expectations going into it?
“We have the same expectations every time we have a game. We’re going to get as prepared as we can and have the same focus every single game that we play. That’s the main thing.”
Given some of the teams you all have beaten in conference play, do you feel like this team has the potential to go on a run and maybe win a few games?
“Of course. We go into every game thinking that we’re going to win and that’s what we’re going to try to do one game at a time.”
When you guys are on and playing your best, do you feel like you can beat any team in the conference?
“I definitely think that. We showed that. GW was playing well when we beat them and we beat Dayton next. I think if we play how we know we can play, I think we can play with anyone.”
Do you remember the feeling of leaving last year after just one game?
“Yeah, it was terrible. Just getting prepared and going up to New York for a big event and coming back with one loss and driving seven hours the next day – it’s not what anyone wants to do. It definitely wasn’t good.”
Are tournaments like this all about matchups?
“We like playing against Saint Louis. We just match up well against them. There are certain teams we don’t match up as well with, but I don’t think we really look at that. We’re going into this game with the same preparation. We try not to look too far into that.”
How different is this team from where you all started this year?
“Just like any other team, we went through some learning experiences early in the year. We obviously adjusted our defense going from man to zone. Offensively, we were trying to figure each other out and I think we finally started to do that at the end of the year. Just like any other team, you want to be playing your best basketball in March and I think we’ve been playing pretty well. We’ve won three of our last five. Hopefully those differences that we made can help us make a run here in March.”
For a team that’s struggled this season, how big of a point of emphasis has the conference tournament been for you guys over this past month? Has it been something Coach Ferry’s talked about a whole to you guys about and stressed the importance of?
“We take every game one game at a time, so we didn’t really talk about the conference tournament until today, honestly. We knew the seeding was still planning itself out. We wanted to not have to play that play-in game, but we understand that we have to. We’re going to try to use that game to our advantage and use it as momentum. Hopefully we win that one and then going into the next one, we’ll be used to the Barclays Center and the rims. We might be a little fatigued because of that play-in game, but we feel like we can use it to our advantage.”
Does the conference tournament represent a clean slate in what has otherwise been a difficult season?
“Absolutely. When you get to the conference tournament, nothing from the past really matters anymore. Personnel is still the same, teams still play the same, but you have to play the game. Davidson beat us by 30, but if they come out and lose their first game, that’s it for them in the conference tournament. It’s the same with us. Saint Louis beat us once and we beat them once, but that doesn’t really matter. We have to go out and play them a third time. The team that prepares the best and plays the best that day is going to win and move on.”
Is it important to get a win up there and end the season on a pretty good note?
“That’s definitely our goal, to go up there and stay the whole week. I don’t know one team that’s going to go up there and tell you that their goal is not to win at least one game. We definitely want to win more than one game. We think we’re capable of it, but we just have to go up there and take one game at a time and play the way we’re supposed to play.”
Is it important for the growth of the program to win a game?
“Yes, it is. My freshman year, we didn’t even participate in the conference tournament. Last year, we ran into Richmond and Richmond’s always a tough matchup for us. This year, we’re feeling pretty optimistic going into it. Last year, we were playing some of our best basketball toward the end of the season and we just didn’t have a good game against Richmond. But this year, we’re going to try to take things a little bit more seriously and hopefully it will be different.”
Do you feel better about the Saint Louis matchup than you did the Richmond one last year?
“To be honest with you, yes. You’ve got to play every team the same, but I feel better about going into a game against Saint Louis because they’re a more inexperienced team. I think Richmond is an older team and they’ve been playing together a little bit more. Saint Louis is still a good team, don’t get me wrong, but I’d rather play them than Richmond.”
We didn’t get the chance to talk to you all after the Davidson win. Was that as good of an offensive team as you’ve seen this season and maybe even in your time here?
“Potent. That’s one word to describe them. They’re potent. They’ve got shooting all over the floor. Even the guys that aren’t shooters, they’re still effective on the floor, with the way they play inside. That’s just a good offensive team. They shot the ball well that night and we didn’t play particularly well. That’s a good team. They won the conference, they’ll make the NCAA tournament and I wouldn’t expect them to be out after the first round of the NCAA tournament. That’s where we want to eventually get to. That’s a good team.”
Given that, it’s probably hard to be too down on yourself, even with that margin of victory, right?
“You don’t have time to be down on yourself now. We didn’t talk much after that game because now the focus is on Saint Louis. There’s nothing you can do about that loss. That doesn’t really matter. It would have taken us out of the play-in game, but we should have won two more games easily in the beginning of the year. That Rhode Island game, I’ll put that on me for the 50-50 ball I didn’t get. The St. Bonaventure game, we had that won at home, but we ended up giving it away. That’s on us.”
Do you feel like you’re a better team than the record shows?
“I think so. We could easily have two more wins, at least. We played VCU pretty tough at home, we played UMass tough on the road. I do think we’re better than our record shows. We didn’t play well in the non-conference and I think we lost some games we could have won. But our record is what it is. Hopefully teams look down on us because of that record and we can come out and surprise some people.”
Did you all solve some of those road problems with that Fordham win?
“We did the same thing we were doing in all of our other road games. Just going in and executing and playing the way we play and do what we do. We were just fortunate enough to win that game. That was good for us to win that game going into the tournament.”
Do you guys feel like this team is better and in a better spot than it was last year, even if its record isn’t as good?
“I think we’re a better team than we were last year. Like you said, last year our record at this point was maybe better, but overall as a team and how everybody felt by playing together, I feel like it’s way better this year. We all like playing together. Last year, I can’t really say it was like that.”
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