Duquesne taking on challenge of small roster

Updated: October 19, 2006, 9:16 PM ET
Associated Press

PITTSBURGH -- Duquesne basketball coach Ron Everhart spent much of the last month dealing with the emotional impact of a shooting that left nearly half of his scholarship players with gunshot wounds.

At the same time, Everhart is trying to lessen the on-court impact of the shootings to a program he is only beginning to rebuild from a 3-24 season.

With their first exhibition game only 10 days away, the Dukes have unwillingly become one of the smallest teams in major college basketball. They have no player taller than 6-foot-9 and only one healthy player taller than 6-foot-6, a situation that may not change for weeks.

Last season, Everhart was accustomed to having 6-foot-10 Shawn James control the inside as the nation's leading shot blocker and the Colonial Athletic Association defensive player of the year at Northeastern. Right now, the coach doesn't have a healthy center on the court.

Kieron Achara, one of only two returning players from the worst-record team in Duquesne history, is 6-9 but is more of a forward than a center. The Dukes brought in 6-9 Almamy Thiero as a graduate school transfer from Memphis, but he recently had knee surgery and may get little practice time before the season starts Nov. 13.

"There's no question from a basketball perspective we've taken a major blow and it's going to be a major obstacle to overcome,'' Everhart said. "We're very thin and very guard-oriented.''

Everhart was counting on having strong inside play with 6-foot-7 Stuard Baldonado, a junior college transfer from Miami Dade, handling much of the rebounding. But he was shot in the arm and back last month, along with four teammates, and seems unlikely to play this season as he rehabilitates.

Sam Ashaolu, another 6-7 power forward, also was expected to provide muscle inside, but he remains hospitalized with multiple gunshot wounds to the head. His basketball career is in doubt, though his status might not be known for months.

James transferred to Duquesne after Everhart was hired there, but is currently unable to practice after being shot in the foot. He was being counted on to push the other front-court players in practice until he became eligible next season.

Maybe it's not a coincidence that one of Everhart's assistants, Richard Pitino, is the son of one of the first advocates of the 3-pointer, Louisville coach Rick Pitino.

Pitino's 1987 Providence team made it to the Final Four on the strength of its outside shooting, led by guard and current NCAA championship coach Billy Donovan of Florida. Expect these Dukes to also be overly reliant on the outside shot, especially when 6-4 freshman guard Stephen Wood of New York City gets over a bruised left leg.

While practicing almost daily has shifted the Dukes' attention away from the shootings, the players still must deal with one of the more violent tragedies in NCAA history. It's never far from them given the empty stalls in the locker room.

"I think they're handling it extremely well considering all the circumstances,'' Everhart said. "One of things we've tried to do from a team perspective is to think of Sam and remember what he is going through, and focus and concentrate on what the task at hand is.''

Two of his most experienced players, James and former Siena guard Kojo Mensah, have tried to keep an upbeat attitude despite being shot themselves. Mensah was shot in the left arm.

"It's incredible their mood and it's incredible their outlook on life,'' Everhart said. "The other day, Shawn said to Kojo, 'We played in AAUs together, we played in prep school together and now we got shot together.' They're trying to get through this together -- they go see Sam almost every day -- and they've been very motivating for the rest of the team.''

Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press