Pitt not resting on reputation in City Game prep against Duquesne
Malik Ellison didn’t sleep well upon returning to Pitt’s campus in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, but his tossing and turning had little to do with the time of day.
Just hours before Ellison and his Pitt teammates saw their bid for their biggest victory of the season so far come up just short in a one-point loss at No. 14 Iowa.
But with the annual City Game against Duquesne on Friday, the Panthers (6-1) know they could not afford to lick their wounds for long — certainly not with an upstart Duquesne team seeking its second win over favored Pitt in three seasons.
“Coach (Jeff Capel) came in, and he told us next-game mentality,” said Ellison, a junior guard. “That was the past. We have to put that behind us, and we have to get ready for this game (Friday) against Duquesne. Obviously, they’re a tough team, and this is their biggest game of the year. So for us, this is one of our biggest games, too.”
When Duquesne (4-1) and Pitt tip off at 7 p.m. at PPG Paints Arena, they will look different than last year: Just five current Panthers and two current Dukes played in that 76-64 Pitt victory.
Only one player remains from Duquesne’s 64-55 win in 2016, which snapped the Dukes’ 15-game losing streak: Duquesne junior Mike Lewis II. Even both coaches are gone from that contest, with Capel in his first season at Pitt and Keith Dambrot in his second at Duquesne.
“That just lets you know it’s a complete makeover,” Lewis said. “Everything is brand new.”
But while the bulk of Pitt and Duquesne’s rosters and coaching staffs are newcomers to this rivalry, they know the stakes. Duquesne is seeking to gain ground in a series Pitt dominated in recent years, and the Panthers are trying to maintain their superiority.
“We’ve talked about how it’s a huge game for us, for a couple of reasons,” Capel said. “One, to me, every game is a big game because we’re playing and it doesn’t matter who it is. That’s something I learned in college: Every game is a big game and the most important game because we’re playing. We need to value every opportunity that we have as a team to compete, and so it’s a big game because of that.
“Obviously, with the crosstown rivalry and the history of this game, it’s something that you want: You want bragging rights. The third thing, for me, is we’re coming off a loss. So we should be emotional. We should be angry. We should be excited. All of those things.”
Lewis said the game against Pitt stands as the most intense of Duquesne’s season, and both teams will attempt to wrangle their emotions Friday.
“There’s a lot of energy, and you’ve got to control it a little bit because too much energy can lead to crazy things happening,” Lewis said.
Both Duquesne and Pitt are undergoing rebuilding processes built around freshmen and transfers, with a couple of holdovers thrown in, and both are showing progress.
Duquesne freshman point guard Sincere Carry, a late find by Dambrot on the recruiting trail, is averaging 10 points and 6.6 assists. Sophomore Eric Williams Jr. leads the Dukes in scoring (15.2) and rebounding (8.6), and 6-foot-8 Akron transfer Michael Hughes ranks second in both categories. Nine Duquesne players average double-digit minutes per game.
Pitt is seeing success with its trio of starting freshmen — Au’Diese Toney, Xavier Johnson and Trey McGowens — plus St. John’s transfer Ellison and New Mexico State transfer Sidy N’Dir and holdovers Jared Wilson-Frame and Kene Chukwuka.
“I think both teams are on the upswing,” Dambrot said. “It’s yet to be determined how much of an upswing, so we’ll see on both teams at the end of the year.”
Both teams have their own strengths. Pitt is more penetration-oriented offensively, and Duquesne is more of an inside-out combination. Both like to get out and run.
“They look like they play hard, so we’ve just got to make sure we take care of the ball,” Ellison said. “The good thing for us is that’s our tempo, too.”
Capel said he liked seeing Pitt’s response to the Iowa loss, but the next step for the program is learning how to win those types of games.
“We have to learn from the mistakes, hopefully correct them and get better from them,” he said. “At some point, we’ll be in that position again. It could be (Friday).”
Doug Gulasy is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Doug at [email protected]
or via Twitter @dgulasy_Trib.