Duquesne University opens its 95th season of basketball tonight against an unlikely opponent in NCAA Division II Bluefield State, but you’ll hear no gripes from the Dukes, whose starting lineup just might include two freshmen and two sophomores.
“The experience we got in game situations in our two exhibitions has been invaluable, and we’re going to look to improve with each game,” said Duquesne freshman guard T.J. McConnell, who enters his first college season with high expectations after concluding his high school career at Chartiers Valley as the WPIAL’s all-time leader in 3-point field goals.
The 6-foot McConnell, whose pinpoint passing compliments his renowned shooting touch, and fellow freshman guard T.J. Talley, a 5-foot-10 lightning bolt, are creating a positive buzz around the program that coach Ron Everhart hopes is contagious following a sour finish to a 16-16 season a year ago, when the Dukes stumbled to four losses in their final five games.
“We needed to address getting more playmakers on the floor this year than we had last year,” he said. “I feel we’ve done that with T.J., Mike and Jerry (Jones),” Everhart said. “I think they proved that already in the two exhibition games.”
All three guards made significant contributions, with McConnell missing triple-doubles in both games by just one steal in a 100-53 victory over La Roche and one assist in a 118-65 victory over Lycoming, both Division III opponents.
Talley totaled 10 assists against Lycoming.
A fourth freshman, 6-5 forward Joel (pronounced Jo-EL) Wright is known as “Air Jamaica” for his leaping ability. He wound up sitting out most of the Lycoming game because Everhart didn’t feel he was adapting to the team’s chemistry quickly enough.
“You’ve got to understand your role,” Everhart said. “If you don’t play the way we want you to play, if you don’t do the things you’re taught in practice, you’re going to have to sit and watch until you understand what to do.”
Three sophomores — guard Sean Johnson and forwards Andre Marhold and Rodrigo Peggau — also are candidates for the starting lineup while senior forward Damian Saunders, a preseason all-Atlantic 10 Conference pick, sits out the last of a three-game suspension.
While Wright played just six minutes against Lycoming, he’ll figure to see more time tonight against Bluefield State, a late addition to Duquesne’s schedule after the Dukes were unable to secure a Division I home opponent.
The Dukes were forced to fill their final opening for the schedule with Bluefield State, a member of the West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, after St. Francis (Pa.) abruptly ended its series with Duquesne.
Several other potential matchups also failed to materialize, including a game with Portland as part of a proposed Atlantic 10/West Coast Conference Challenge.
“Michigan State, Seton Hall, Georgetown. They and a lot of others were looking for games. It just didn’t work out,” Duquesne athletics director Greg Amodio said. “When you get to a certain point where it looks like you’ve exhausted all of your opportunities in order to fill up your home schedule, that’s when we went ahead and scheduled the Division II opponent that also needed a game.”
Amodio said that ideally he likes to have between 15 and 17 home games on Duquesne’s schedule every year. This season, the Dukes will play 15 games at either Palumbo Center or Consol Energy Center.
“You try to schedule your opening weekend at home,” he said. “You always like to have it at home. We approached during the course of the spring and summer some 40 schools for either a home-and-home series or a guarantee (payout) game at home. All you can do is ask. If it doesn’t suit the other school or doesn’t suit your needs, it’s not going to work. There’s a lot involved in filling a spot.”
Duquesne’s first scheduled game against a Division I opponent comes Friday at Robert Morris before the Dukes head to Bowling Green three days later on Nov. 22. Their first Atlantic 10 Conference game is Jan. 5 at Saint Joseph’s.
Duquesne has never faced Bluefield State. The Dukes last season survived a 75-72 overtime victory over Division II Arkansas-Monticello at the O’Reilly Auto Parts CBE Classic at Western Carolina.
“We’ve still got to lace up our shoes, put on our uniform and get out there and take care of business,” Everhart said. “I’m excited to see our young guys in action. They really don’t know what to expect yet, as is the case with most freshmen. But they know what good teams are all about, so they have a sense that what they’ve been able to do well in high school is going to be a little bit harder to do now.”
Bluefield State (0-1) at Duquesne (0-0)
7 p.m. today, Palumbo Center
Radio: WPBG-FM (104.7)
Series: First meeting
Outlook: Duquesne has won four consecutive home openers — its last loss coming in 2005 to Arkansas-Pine Bluff, just the fourth setback in 78 home openers for the Dukes.
Duquesne will be without senior forward Damian Saunders, the Atlantic 10 Defensive Player of the Year last season; point guard Eric Evans, the team’s assists leader (3.8 per game) a season ago; and reserve forward David Theis.
Saunders wasn’t permitted to play in the team’s two exhibition games, as well, after coach Ron Everhart suspended him for violating team rules. Saunders will be eligible to return to the lineup next Friday at Robert Morris.
Evans likely will be out until early January following surgery to repair a broken foot, sustained in Duquesne’s Red-Blue Scrimmage on Oct. 23.
Theis resumed limited workouts with Duquesne this week after a severely sprained ankle sustained in a pickup game Sept. 27 has kept him out of practice.
Bluefield State represents the second NCAA Division II school to face Duquesne in as many seasons. The Dukes defeated Arkansas-Monticello, 75-72, in overtime last season at the O’Reilly Auto Parts CBE Classic.
Bluefield State, a member of the West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, opened with an 82-56 loss to NAIA Division I Mountain State on Nov. 6. The Big Blues — 3-25 last season, including 0-13 on the road — were without six players who had yet to pass through the NCAA Clearinghouse.
â¢ Coach: Jimmy Voight, 1st season (0-1)
FHickman Simmons,6-6Jr.:15.0 points per game
G/FJulius Lang,6-5Jr.:17.0 ppg
GJerome Johnson,6-4Sr.:7.0 ppg
GMyles Nicholas,6-3Sr.:5.0 ppg
GJoseph Spiers,6-1So.:10.0 ppg
â¢ Coach: Ron Everhart, 5th season (64-61)
F/GBill Clark,6-5Sr.:14.1 ppg
F/CAndre Marhold,6-6So.:0.8 ppg
F/CRodrigo Peggau,6-8So.:1.3 ppg
G/FB.J. Monteiro,6-5Jr.:11.1 ppg
GSean Johnson,6-2So.:5.6 ppg
GMike Talley,5-10Fr.: N/A
GT.J. McConnell,6-0Fr.: N/A
Note : Duquesne PPG are from last season.