Duquesne turned the page on 2013 with a lopsided 79-55 drubbing of Appalachian State at the Palumbo Center Thursday night. It was the kind of win that makes you think two things: 1. Hey, maybe this team really can scare some folks in the Atlantic 10; and, 2. Could I have suited up and single-handedly put on a better show than the Mountaineers just did?
(Hey, a 6-foot-3 I'd at least have a nice height advantage over Derrick Colter, right?)
At the dawn of Atlantic 10 play, the Dukes are in a familiar position — after plenty of good and plenty of bad in the first three months of the season, here they sit with seven wins, just like last season. Now, you'll remember that a year ago Duquesne was 7-7 going into conference play and subsequently went 1-15 the rest of the way.
So, a 7-5 start isn't half bad, especially since second-year head coach Jim Ferry and the Dukes are working with nine new players on the court this year, but this is where everything really has to come together. Duquesne will host Fordham Wednesday night at the Palumbo Center. "The A-10 is an animal," senior forward Ovie Soko said last week. "It's a beast," Ferry said.
Before we meet the beast, let's take a look back at the first half of the 2013-14 season.
|2013-14 TEAM LEADERS|
If we knew only one thing entering the fall, it was that this Duquesne team was built to score. And it has, for the most part. Ferry's hyper-tempo transition offense worked rather well through the nonconference season, though it looked at times like the Dukes were running out of their shoes. There were turnovers galore, especially early, but the offense seems to have settled in, especially since the return of sophomore guard Micah Mason, who was injured in his first start (vs. Albany) and missed five games with a broken hand. Mason is shooting at a ridiculous clip — 20 of 32 (.625) from 3-point range — and has been exactly what Duquesne wanted him to be: a pure shooter who can space out the floor, adding another dimension to the transition offense. The true engine of this offense, of course, is Soko, who is averaging 18.1 points and 8.8 rebounds per game. After sitting out last season due to NCAA transfer restrictions, Soko started hot and has hardly been stopped yet. He's had four double-doubles and has been held to fewer than 14 points just once (6 points vs. UMBC). With that said, Soko also takes 21 percent of Duquesne's shots, and when everything isn't falling, the Dukes are in trouble. Thanks largely to the new, established presences down low in Soko and junior forward Dominique McKoy (10.2 ppg, 7.0 rpg), Duquesne has relied far less on the 3-pointer this season, attempting more than five fewer 3-pointers than a year ago. Opponents have attempted 50 more 3-pointers than the Dukes have through 12 games. More impressive, though, is that Duquesne has gotten to the line 128 times more than opponents have. The Dukes are averaging 28.2 free-throw attempts per game, and they're succeeding in the stated team goal of making more free throws (230) than the opponents attempts (211).
If Duquesne's offense was as good as expected, the defense has been, at most times, far worse. Even Ferry is quick to admit that he thought the defense would have come together quicker. If anything, he told me in November, he had expected the offense to take longer to jell because of all the new pieces working into the rotation. The Dukes are allowing 74.4 points per game, and a couple teams killed them from long range — New Hampshire hit 15 3-pointers, Saint Francis 11, Robert Morris 11 and UMBC 11 — and, all in all, opponents are shooting a healthy 38 percent from deep. The silver lining, of course, is that Duquesne is coming off its best defensive performance of the season, as underwhelming Appalachian State scored just 55 points last week, a game in which the Mountaineers made just 20 buckets and shot 31 percent from the floor. Bringing Mason into the starting lineup has seemed to help, as Ferry calls him one of the team's best defensive players, though sophomore forward Jeremiah Jones appears to be the best on-the-ball defender. Junior guard Tra'Vaughn White, who was replaced by Mason, is a potent offensive threat but wasn't offering much defensively, so bringing him off the bench seems to be a wise compromise.
And now we've reached the part of the show where we look at the roster one player at a time, breaking it down positions, and assign letter grades. Grade inflation is real, but it won't be tolerated here. Here's our rubric — A: superior; B: above average; C: average; D: below average; F: failing.
Ovie Soko (Sr.) — 18.1 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 1.8 apg.
- Soko has been the Dukes' rock through 12 games; as he goes (for better or worse), the team goes. The leading scorer and rebounder, he's been a steady (not spectacular) and has a real knack for getting to the foul line and taking advantage of those freebies. He's on pace to break Duquesne's record for free-throw attempts per game, and he has knocked down 47 of his last 56 free-throw attempts (.839). Soko is an incredibly physical player, as just about every coach and player we speak to after games have said; that came back and bit Soko when he fouled out in consecutive games, losses to Penn State and Robert Morris. Couple those critical foul-outs (he called them "freshman mistakes") with a few subpar shooting performances (UNH, Pitt, UMBC) that truly cost his team, and that leaves him just outside the "superior" range. His media skills and British accent, though, are supreme. Grade: A-
Dominique McKoy (Jr.) — 10.2 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 1.2 bpg.
- While Soko's impact was fully expected, McKoy has been a very, very pleasant surprise. For a team with extremely limited frontcourt depth early in the season with freshmen forward Isaiah Watkins (knee) and Jordan Robinson (ineligible) out, Watkins ate up big minutes and proved himself early. He's had two double-doubles, has been a good second option in the paint and, most importantly, has shot 71 percent from the floor. Grade: B
Jeremiah Jones (So.) — 8.7 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 2.0 apg.
- The second-year starter hasn't exactly made a massive leap forward from Year 1 to Year 2, averaging 8.7 points and 3.9 rebounds per game this year (7.7 ppg, 4.1 rpg in 2012-13), but he's been consistent and has proven his mettle on defense. Shooting 48 percent from the floor in limited attempts. Plays second-most minutes on the team. Grade: C+
Micah Mason (So.) — 10.3 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 2.4 apg.
- Is it wrong to get penalized for missing time? Well, if you can lose attendance points for being absent in class, I'm going to say yes, a little. And it's been a small (yet impressive) sample size with Mason. The rest here is simple: Mason is one of the best pure shooters in the country. He's shooting 62 percent from 3-point range even though he missed five games to a broken hand. Yes, he broke his right (shooting) hand only to come back and hit 11 of his first 15 3-point attempts (.733). Mason came off the bench for three games (remember, he was coming off of hip surgery and NCAA eligibility questions) before Ferry called him into the starting lineup. Ferry has lauded Mason's defense, too, so there's very little to question about this kid's game. The Dukes certainly could have used him while he was sidelined — they went 2-3 in that month. Grade: B+
Derrick Colter (So.) — 9.3 ppg, 3.7 apg, 2.6 rpg.
- The team's leading scorer last season (13.5 ppg, 5.2 apg), Colter now sits fifth on the points list (9.3 ppg). There are positives: turnovers are down, cut in half to 1.7 per game, and his shooting percentages are all up (2-pt, 3-pt, free throw). And there are plenty of not-so-positives: The man who handles the transition offense is getting to the line just 2.4 times per game, down 1.8 from an already low total last season; he has the lowest shooting percentage of any starter; and then there's the defense. Ferry has been very clear that if Colter and White didn't refocus on defense, they'd sit. And Colter has. He's averaging six fewer minutes per game from a year ago. A 5-foot-11 guard with defensive lapses is a major problem — you'll notice that it hasn't been the big men killing the Duquesne defense this season. Grade: C-
Tra'Vaughn White (Jr.) — 13.4 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 1.9 apg.
- The leading JUCO scorer in the country last season, White has shown his scoring flash. He's also shown his defensive weakness, which, basically, is why he's on the bench now — Mason is more reliable defensively. Still, White is the team's second-leading scorer and even had 14 points off the bench against Appalachian State. The bench had 32 points in that game, and that depth will be needed badly in A-10 play. Grade: C+
Desmond Ridenour (Fr.) — 5.8 ppg, 1.9 apg, 1.6 rpg.
- Athletic kid with a bright future, though he has to continue to improve his decision-making with the ball in his hands — 15 turnovers off the bench. He's finding his feet on defense and is a completely serviceable backup to Colter as a true freshman. Ferry and Co. will take that. Grade: C
Jerry Jones (Jr.) — 5.8 ppg, 1.6 rpg, 1.5 apg.
- Jones has played a significantly diminished role this season with the addition of Mason and White. He's mostly finding minutes now behind the other Jones, who rarely leaves the game from his position as the "3" forward. After 7.3 points and 23.9 minutes per game last season (14 starts), Jones is averaging 4.6 points and just 16.3 minutes per game this season. Still a solid shooter with nice height. Grade: C-
L.G. Gill (Fr.) — 3.0 ppg, 1.5 rpg.
- A true freshman forced into action from Day 1, Gill has held his own. He, like Lewis, needs time to grow into his body, upping physicality and muscling up on the boards. He's spelled McKoy well, but like the next two guys there's too small of a sample size to give a grade. Grade: N/A
Isaiah Watkins (Fr.) — 1.7 ppg, 1.5 rpg.
- Has a college-ready body but is only just getting going now after missing the bulk of the nonconference schedule following a surgical procedure on his knee. Grade: N/A
Darius Lewis (Fr.) — 0.7 ppg, 1.3 rpg.
- Big boy getting just four minutes per game. He's a perfect 2-for-2 from the field but has missed 5 of 6 free-throw attempts. Hmm. Grade: N/A
It would be tough for any coaching staff to bid farewell to 10 guys, usher nine new ones in the door and put together a winning season to keep fans happy. The 7-5 start is bittersweet, I think, because the UNH and Robert Morris losses just look silly when you're trying to build an NCAA Tournament-ready team. Those losses are ugly, but they're bound to happen when you're still piecing and patching a team together. The answers seem to be coming together for this team, and not a minute too soon. The offense is clicking as well as it has all season — assists, bench points, fast-break points all up — and the defense has looked good during most of this four-game winning streak. We saw how well Ferry's system can work when the Dukes pummeled Appalachian State, but, yeah, still Appalachian State. The Atlantic 10 season is where true judgements can be made. I'd say this coaching staff has done well to get to this point, but what matters is how what this team does next. Grade: B-
As far as an overall grade, I'd give Duquesne a C+ for the first half — average, but shading in the right direction. All told, adding in the reserves, the frontcourt is a B-, could nose higher if there was more depth and if Robinson was available, and the backcourt is about a C.
Here are a few thoughts from Twitter:
@DukesPG Soko B, McKoy B-, Ja Jones C, Mason B, Colter D, White C+, bench C+, Ferry C. NH & Bobby Mo games brought down everyone's grades.— John Schmidt (@TheWordSchmidt) January 4, 2014
@DukesPG That's a tough question. It's difficult to give any position better than a C when I consider how badly they've defended.— Steve DiMiceli (@SDWearsTheRing) January 4, 2014
@DukesPG Offensively they're all C or better. Defensively only small forward might be in my opinion.— Steve DiMiceli (@SDWearsTheRing) January 4, 2014
Finally, as a personal aside, as a first-year beat man for Duquesne, really appreciate everyone who reads and/or connects via Twitter or email. Feel free to send in your thoughts, and I'll add them. It's been a good first half; looking forward to what's ahead. Hopefully, too, the Palumbo Center will start to fill up a bit more as more prominent opponents visit in the next few months.