Dukes Suffer Diappointing Loss in City Game

If I had written this last night, it would have been an emotionally charged piece with prose that can likely be choppy and incoherent. I wanted to avoid that so I am writing on the day after to hopefully provide a more thoughtful analysis of what went down. Pitt came back from a 16 point deficit with 17 and a half minutes left to play but they came all the way back. In his post game press conference Ron Everhart summed up his players performance in the second half well. He said “I thought our kids gave a great effort–I didn’t think we were the most intelligent team in the world tonight…and we did all night.”

The first half of this game rendered my pregame analysis almost moot, but then the second half happened. I stated yesterday that if either of these teams shoot the lights out, that team will win. For the first 23 minutes of the game that was the case and it looked like the Dukes were going to pull off the victory. The final shooting percentages averaged out to be 33.9% for Pitt and 31.8% for Duquesne, so it turned out I was right although I didn’t want to be. Right around that 17 minute mark the Panthers switched to a 2-3 zone which was a rather counter intuitive move in retrospect. A team has been raining threes over your head for the entire game and perhaps the best way to defeat a 2-3 with only 2 perimeter defenders is to shoot over top of it. Shoot the Dukes did for the remainder of regulation and the overtimes. Another way to attack a 2-3 is to get the ball in the middle and make the defenders move to open lanes for cutters and potential open shots. That’s where the basketball IQ or lack there of in this case kicks in. It seemed as if the Dukes were just standing around and waiting for the game to come to them rather then taking over the game.

It is likely that the root cause of the failure to attack the zone in the second half was fatigue. The Dukes called the number of eight guys, two of which played for a total of 10 minutes and Rodrigo Peggau steeped up and played 27. So, six players played a total of 240 of 250 total floor minutes in the game yesterday. Now, had coach Everhart read his Dukes Hoops Digest he could have taken my advice and play his bench guys more, especially Sean Johnson. (Note: I totally forgot about Peggau, P-G beat writer Colin Dunlap reported he didn’t play on Sunday because of a sore knee, so I didn’t expect him to make such a big splash–silly me.) If a team’s goal is to run, then there must be enough guys that can go out there and spell the starters. That simply didn’t happen, the Dukes got tired and started missing their shots.

I implied in the last paragraph the Duquesne’s goal was to run, which apparently it wasn’t. Ken Pomeroy’s site reveals that the pace of the game yesterday was 56 possessions per 40 minutes which is not how the Dukes should be playing. Right now they may not have a choice with a number of players still wet behind the ears, but mark my words: if the Dukes don’t start pushing the tempo as they head toward conference play there will be trouble. I assume that Everhart and the coaches are trying to break in the new guys so that when they begin to play bigger minutes they will be ready to contribute. That may be the correct strategy, looking at Peggau’s performance yesterday. The Brazilian has waited along time to get his shot and performed well on a big stage.

Another key concern for the Dukes yesterday was the lack of a pressence of Damian Saunders. I surmised yesterday that Duquesne would have an edge with Saunders over McGhee, but they played pretty much to a draw while McGhee was able to come up big when Saunders fouled out. Now, Damian fouled out of yesterday’s ballgame with the help of at least three suspect calls. That seems to be a problem for the Dukes’ lead post player. He gets called for fouls that he often didn’t commit or simply weren’t there. I don’t expect that story line to fade in the near future, so again I would implore the coaches to get him some game time help with Oliver Lewison and Morakinyo Williams, if only to give Saunders a break. His shoulders are broad but he can’t carry the load all by himself. He simply is not the kind of offensive player that can get the ball on the block and score. Such a presence for this team would be a huge addition.

Speaking of foul trouble, I also mentioned in the preview a key stat would be free throw attempts, and such was the case. Pitt went a pathetic 23-42 from the line but they made more free throws than the Dukes even attempted. The Dukes posted a 7 of 14 mark giving the Panthers a +16 margin which was more than the nine point difference on the final score sheet. Simply put, Duquesne took too many fouls and didn’t draw enough fouls, and they likely lost the game because of it.

I was really hoping during the game that I would be wrong, and the Dukes would just continue to shoot the lights out as they had done in the first half. However, with every three pointer jacked up in the second half my mind went to the same place. That place is one of fear and dread, I just foresaw the end and it was not pretty. Taking those lazy shots and not working to get anything going against that zone made my premonitions come true, and how I wish it were not so. Maybe next year guys.

So, Can The Dukes Beat Pitt?

So, can they? I must first start by looking back three years in the past and say to myself, look how far we have come. Three years ago, if the over-under for wins against Pitt in my lifetime was 1/2 I probably would have taken the under at gun point. Now, it is three years later and I think Duquesne can beat Pitt on a neutral floor with most of the fans likely rooting for the Panthers (some home game, huh). In fact, I think that the Dukes should be victorious in this affair. Now, will they? The answer to that will say much about the 2009-10 season for Duquesne. The game tonight should serve as a barometer for the amount of confidence the Dukes have in themselves and whether or not they can rise to the occasion and win a game against a formidable opponent.

I would be supremely confident if Melquan Bolding were able to play in this game. If Bolding were in the lineup, I would expect the Dukes to win because they would have the guy who can create his own shot and serve as the lead crunch time scorer as a big small forward who Pitt could not match-up with. Bolding would have been the player to take over the aforementioned role from Aaron Jackson who rose to the occasion to put away close games and put it upon himself to defeat superior opponents. However, Bolding is not in the lineup so this reasoning does not apply to this game.

With Melquan out, I still think Duquesne should win. My logic here goes as follows. Duquesne and Pitt are similar teams in the ways they are structured. Both teams get most of their production from the perimeter and run guard heavy offenses. Both teams are supposed to be able to shoot from behind the arc but have done poorly thus far this season. Last season, the Dukes shot 35.9% from three point distance as opposed to 28.3% this year.  What’s the difference? Some of the shooters, including Eric Evans and Jason Duty are not equipped to create their own three point opportunities and that option is not available to them since the one guy who can create his own shot (Bolding) is not playing. Also, Damian Saunders and Bill Clark while being decent shooters have always probably taken to many three point attempts. On the Pitt side they shot 35.4% and they lost known chuckers LeVance Fields and Sam Young along with their combined 283 attempts. To add to this point, their best shooters (Brad Wannamaker and Ashton Gibbs) are supposedly the guys running the show on offense for the Panthers. (Note: If either of these teams shoot the lights out tonight that is the team that will win, however I do not see that as likely considering the quality of defense played by both teams.)

Both teams have been good on defense, and Pitt has been great on that side of the ball posting a 0.915 opponents points per possession (PPP) compared to Duquesne who is giving up 0.968 Opponents PPP. However, that statistic undersells the Dukes’ defensive prowess because they gave up 1.19 PPP against Western Carolina in a game where they shot better than Navy Seals and it was the third game in three nights that Duquesne played. The fatigue factor should not be an issue in this game after watching the balls to the walls effort on Sunday against Radford where the Highlanders were limited to 0.797 points per trip down the floor. Considering these facts I see it as unlikely that either of these teams will light up the score board with bombs from 22 feet.

The contest will hinge on one particular factor, that being the match-up between 6’10” Gary McGhee of Pitt and 6’7″ Damian Saunders for the boys from the bluff. Saunders has yet to notch less than 15 rebounds in a game and I see no reason why he should not do that in this contest. McGhee is coming off his two finest games this season including a shut down of Texas big man Dexter Pittman. Pittman, while one of my favorite players in the NCAA does not play like Saunders. Saunders likes to run and play around the perimeter on offense. Saunders should, in my estimation, wear McGhee down. If Saunders line looks something like 20 points-20 Rebounds-4 assists then I am confident that the Dukes will have reigned supreme in the city game for the first time since 2000. I think Saunders should be able to put up his obligatory 15-15 and that will be along with some perimeter player adding points (likely candidates: Clark or Monteiro). With that being the case, I think the Dukes win. They would win due to a favorable match-up rather than being the better team per se, but nevertheless win.

There are a few things the Dukes must do to win…

1. RUN!!!: This team is made up of athletes that can run and even run an effective offense making good cuts and precision passes when they do up the tempo (as I witnessed on Sunday when I saw out passes that Wes Unseld would be proud of). There should be times when Everhart should put on the press and make Pitt work to get the ball down the floor for a while (This has limited efficacy and should be used at the least expected moments). Also,this team is not built to run a robotic motion offense. It’s good to have offensive sets and use them to get into a rhythm but staying in that offense holds the Dukes back. So, none of that use the motion offense for the whole first half. Pitt is too good in the half court defense and there are no guys on the team that can create their own shots. Also, it is critically important to work Pitt’s big guys and get them tired to let Saunders’ fitness and athleticism carry the day.

2. Use the Bench: Let’s face it. I love Jason Duty more than the next guy but he simply cannot guard fast two guards. There was a noticeable improvement on Sunday versus Radford when Sean Johnson came in off the bench on defense. I want to see around 18 minutes of playing time for Johnson who should help keep the ball out of the net on defense. Also, a couple other guys I should be prominent in this game. Oliver Lewison can be used as a big body and should be able to bang with McGhee and Nasir Robinson to some degree. His five fouls could be valuable because like Duquesne, Pitt is not a good free throw shooting team. Andre Marhold also has excellent athletic ability despite his lack of experience. He can be used to perhaps run a press or help out on fast breaks.

3. RUN SOME MORE!!!: This point cannot be overemphasized. Pitt traditionally runs a slow offense with a pace of 65.9 (271st in the country) possessions per 40 minutes. Whereas Duquesne tends to run a high paced game averaging 70.7 (109th) trips per game. Last season the Dukes were fifth in possessions per 40. So, the Duquesne program is built like a Maserati and Pitt is built like a Honda. Both get the job done on offense (or the road) and but if the Honda has to race the Maserrati it will be left in the dust but the Honda will likely last longer if we are talking about run of the mill driving. Which is better? It doesn’t matter, except that in certain circumstances one is better. In this case the Dukes should win if they speed up the tempo and the Panthers should win if the game is a knock down-drag out affair.

One Key Statisistic: One of the first things I will look for in the box score is free throw shooting. Both teams are bad when it comes to foul shooting. Pitt has made their freebies at a 64.7% clip opposed to the Duquesne mark of 60.6%. Thus, I will look to see who has more free throw opportunities than the other team. Especially, pertinent would be if one team makes more free throws than the other attempts. I am interested for two reasons, each team is good at not giving up free throws to the opposing teams. Pitt is 46th in the nation in free throw attempt to field goal attempt ratio and Duquesne is currently 15th. Neither team fouls that much and if Duquesne can speed up the tempo then the Dukes should be able to get to the line more. Whether they make their free throws, that’s another story.

My final thoughts are that Duquesne can and should win this game. The Dukes will have to work hard in keeping Pitt off the offensive boards and this can be accomplished by big performances by Saunders and maybe Clark. The Dukes should be able to make this game a run and gun affair and I hope that Duquesne can make some damn foul shots. If all goes as planned the Dukes will win. However, this is wishful thinking and the likelihood of Pitt winning is greater than that of Duquesne because they have been there whereas the Dukes haven’t. Even if they lose I am looking for the Dukes to play like they should win the game even if they don’t, and that will be the legacy of the last college basketball game played at the Civic Arena.