Duquesne winning one year after shooting incident
As the mile markers alongside Interstate 80 slowly passed with the droning consistency of a metronome, Duquesne's players and staff had little to do but reflect.
A winter storm had cancelled their flight home after a tournament at Drake. Out of alternatives, the Dukes piled aboard a bus early Sunday morning in Des Moines, Iowa, for a cramp-inducing, rain-soaked, 800-mile drive back to Pittsburgh. There had been no time to find even some DVDs to play on the bus, so the plan was to sleep, stop for some occasional fast food and watch the asphalt melt away. It worked fine except for the 90-minute delay caused when a passenger car sideswiped the bus, which bashed in a luggage compartment and officially made this trip worse than a typical SWAC roadie.
For Ron Everhart and his club, this was just the latest bit of adversity to overcome. Eighteen months ago, he inherited a 3-24 team that finished a game behind scandal-crippled St. Bonaventure in the Atlantic 10. Only two players from that Dukes team ultimately returned.
And then, last September, five players were shot in a nationally publicized on-campus incident. The shorthanded Dukes somehow scrapped their way to 10 wins last season, despite finishing the year with eight straight losses. Then, leading scorer Robert Mitchell left for Seton Hall and heralded juco recruit Stuard Baldonado, one of the victims in the shooting incident on Sept. 17, 2006, was suspended for repeated rules violations.
So why exactly did the bus captives sound so happy? Despite a tough four-point loss to the host Bulldogs the night before, the Dukes' six straight wins to open the season represented the program's best start in 27 years.
"I'm just really enjoying my basketball right now, so I hope we can keep it up," said fifth-year senior Kieron Achara, one of only two Dukes left from the Danny Nee era. "Last year, we were so close to being a good team. There was inconsistency with all the younger players, [their] first time playing Division I. I knew that with what we had coming back, with another year of experience, that we had a chance to be a really, really good team."
So far, they seem to be. While the level of competition hasn't been great, the Dukes' margin of victory has been. Prior to suffering their first loss to Drake in the final of the Bulldogs' Iowa Realty Invitational on Saturday night, Duquesne had won its first six games by an average of almost 30 points a game. Sure, that average is impacted by the Dukes' 129-59 blistering of Howard (which subsequently has beaten Penn, La Salle and Navy), but all six victories were by double figures and include Niagara, last season's MAAC rep in the NCAAs, and a road win at Oakland, which took Michigan State to the wire earlier this season.
So, what's changed from last year and for a program that has one winning season in the past 21 years? Well, mostly everything.
The biggest difference is the huge upgrade in talent on this season's roster, despite the summer defection of last season's leading scorer, Robert Mitchell, and the dismissal of Baldonado. For starters, transfers Shawn James (from Everhart's old program at Northeastern) and Kojo Mensah (after a messy divorce from Siena) -- former prep and AAU teammates who were also also shot in the incident -- are living up to billing. James, who led the nation in blocked shots in 2005-06 but missed three months of workouts last season after taking a bullet in the foot, is posting 13.1 points, 7.9 rebounds and 5.3 swats a game while anchoring the back line of the Dukes' trapping, pressing defense. Mensah, who was grazed by one of the bullets, is leading the team in scoring at 16.4 a game and is adding almost four assists.
Mix in blue-chip freshmen Bill Clark and Damian Saunders (once headed for Marquette before running into legal trouble), who are combining for almost 20 points and more than 13 boards a game, and you essentially have a brand new team that can be offensively lethal.
Through seven games, they are averaging 92.3 points, and five of their seven main shooters are making better than 60 percent from inside the arc. Defensively, the Dukes look much better than you would think, too. In part because of all the shot blocks, Duquesne is second in the nation in field goal percentage defense (34.5 percent), despite playing at one of the nation's fastest tempos.
Last year, basketball was kind of a haven for us. Being on the floor was actually more of a luxury than anything else to get away from all the distractions that were around us.
Everhart is surprised that his "hodgepodge of players" -- as he calls the mix of veterans, transfers and freshmen -- has come together so quickly. He believes the experience of getting through last year's shootings together has helped.
"Last year, basketball was kind of a haven for us," he said. "Being on the floor was actually more of a luxury than anything else to get away from all the distractions that were around us. And again, I think that helped us [as far as bonding]. We're getting some senior leadership even though those guys, outside of Kieron, haven't been around a long time. And I think part of that has to do with the cohesiveness, the team chemistry part of it, guys who are good teammates who trust each other."
That perspective and trust, along with this season's good start, also has helped the team accept the decreased minutes -- and increased possibilities -- that come with Everhart's "10 men for 40 minutes" scheme, one he first implemented last season out of necessity when talent was short.
"We're winning, and you can't say you dislike a system when you look at the results," said James, who along with Mensah, is leading the team at 24.3 minutes a game.
Added Achara: "All of our players at any given time can go off, so it's really hard to defend when you shuttle guys in and out, and the whole team can score."
The combination of the markedly increased talent and and the early-season results makes the Atlantic 10's preseason poll, where the Dukes were picked 11th, look awfully conservative. Indeed, many Dukes noticed that slight and were fired up by it. But Achara, a native of Scotland who was sidelined by an injury during the 3-24 campaign, was there to provide some reasoned -- and seasoned -- perspective.
"It's something that I'm accustomed to being at Duquesne all these years," Achara said of the lack of respect. "I think all the younger players just saw it, and it was a little kick in the teeth. But to be honest, we have proved nothing yet."
They'll get a chance to prove something this week, when they host unbeaten Pitt on Wednesday (ESPNU, 7 p.m. ET) and then travel to one-loss West Virginia on Saturday (ESPN Full Court, ESPN360.com, 7 p.m. ET). Bragging rights definitely are on the line against the ninth-ranked Panthers. Not only is it a battle for Pittsburgh city supremacy, but for Brooklyn natives Mensah and James, the clash means crossing paths with several players also from New York City.
"This goes waaaaay back," James said, with a big laugh. "This is something that I'm going to have to deal with if we lose, and I won't have to deal with if we win."
If they do win, the Dukes will have to deal with other things, like increased expectations. After all they have been through to get to this point, though, you get the sense they wouldn't mind.
Andy Glockner is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's college basketball coverage and is the host of the ESPNU College Basketball Insider podcast. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.