I don’t think Duquesne is that good this year. It’s just that Pitt is very much an uneven, work in progress right now. Duquesne has more experience, but is at a size disadvantage.
The Dukes will trot out an experienced guard-oriented lineup that is high on energy but short on height. Coach Ron Everhart’s tallest starter is 6-foot-7 junior Andre Marhold.
The Panthers have not been a consistent rebounding team, but two of their young post players are starting to come into their own. Freshman Khem Birch and sophomore Talib Zanna have combined for 40 points and 38 rebounds the past two games.
“It’s going to be key,” Pitt senior forward Nasir Robinson said of controlling the boards. “We’ll do a good job on the rebounds and take advantage inside. We have athletic guys like Khem Birch, Talib, Dante [Taylor] and me. We have to use our athleticism and get it done.”
The Dukes will try to exploit Pitt’s transition defense, which was leaky in its loss to Long Beach State. The Dukes, after scoring just 59 points in a season-opening loss at Arizona, have been much better executing their offensive game plan. With their up-tempo style, the Dukes have averaged 85 points in their four victories.
“Against Arizona we walked the ball up a little too much,” McConnell said. “Since then, we got the ball out every time and did not allow [opposing teams] to get set on defense.”
And no doubt they have been reviewing that Long Beach State game.
Duquesne’s lack of height and attempts to speed the tempo make them a poor rebounding team. An area of emphasis for Pitt and Coach Dixon in any year. Both sides are playing up the need to rebound.
Only one Dukes player has produced a double-digit rebounding game all season — McConnell grabbed 10 as part of a triple-double against District of Columbia on Nov. 18. The next showing was six rebounds by two players.
…coach Ron Everhart said that’s no excuse for the Dukes’ shortcomings on the boards. “We have to address the rebounding issues,” he said. “That’s something we have to get better at. (Playing) fast aside, we have to rebound the ball better.”
“We’re going to have to hit the boards hard,” Duquesne senior wing B.J. Monteiro said. “They are definitely bigger than us. We’ve got to get on the glass.”
Pitt coach Jamie Dixon always has stressed rebounding, and while the stats are impressive, he’s not satisfied with the early-season effort. Pitt was outrebounded by Long Beach State and Penn and held a slim 39-35 edge against Robert Morris.
“It’s disappointing,” he said. “It’s something we have not been consistent enough with. Our numbers are pretty good on paper. But we’ve got to improve in that area.”
Yeah, rebounding is important, but I would say for Duquesne that isn’t the big issue if they want to win. It’s their shooting percentage. If they are getting easy baskets in transition. If they are knocking down the shots. They are able to set their defense and pressure more. Then they have a better shot at controlling the tempo.
Speaking of shooting percentages… Ashton Gibbs has some issues.
Gibbs, the Big East preseason player of the year, has taken almost a third of Pitt’s shots through the first six games. He has taken 100 of the team’s 343 field-goal attempts, or 29.2 percent.
A 6-foot-2 senior guard, Gibbs has taken almost twice as many shots as anyone else on the team. After Gibbs’ 100 attempts, Tray Woodall is next with 53 and Nasir Robinson follows with 51.
The shot distribution is vastly different from last season, when the Panthers had a well-balanced offensive attack. Gibbs took 19.5 percent of the teams shots (363 of 1,866), though he missed three games because of injury.
Gibbs is scoring at a slightly better clip than last season. He is averaging 19.3 points per game compared to 16.8 last season, but his overall shooting percentage is much lower.
Gibbs shot 46.8 percent from the field and 49 percent from 3-point range last season. This season, he is shooting 38 percent from the field and 42.6 percent from 3-point range.
Now, I’m not saying Duquesne is trying to find ways to keep themselves and this game meaningful as anything other than a tune-up for Pitt. Or that they are worried that they are falling closer to Robert Morris than Pitt (though, it may be more that RMU is getting closer to Duquesne). But this piece on how Duquesne used to be relevant in Pittsburgh kind of smacks of it.
From 1960-77, during the time when Durham played for two NCAA tournament teams and Duquesne and Pitt met each year in the Steel Bowl tournament or its equivalent, the Dukes won 11 of 15. The loss that still agitates Durham is a 70-58 upset defeat in 1970 that prevented the Dukes from playing defending national champion UCLA in the Steel Bowl championship game. It also ended Duquesne’s 20-game winning streak at the Civic Arena.
“That was embarrassing. We were THE College basketball team in Pittsburgh,” Durham said. “And we all wanted to play UCLA. We wanted to compare ourselves to the best.”
Now they just get to be happy that Pitt shares the gate with them in a neutral site.
Everyone seemed to like this story on Khem Birch and his love of blocking shots. Given his interest after the RMU game about who holds the Pitt record and Duquesne’s lack of height, there’s a good chance he goes all out in the City Game to break the block record.
Finally, there will be a liveblog tonight for the 7pm game. It is being aired on CBS College Sports Network. On DirecTV, that is channel 613.