The Dukes are off to a 3-0 start, so it’s low hanging fruit for me to compare this team to others in recent program history that got off on the right foot. They’re only the fifth Duquesne team since 06-07 to win their first three and only the third to beat a D-1 opponent in each of those wins. This year’s team might have had the toughest path out of any of them as they really haven’t played a true cupcake either. All three opponents currently stand in Kenpom’s top 200 and all three could end the year in the top 150. None of the other cohorts beat three teams that finished in the top 200 teams to open their campaigns.
I could compare this year’s Dukes to any of them, but one in particular makes sense, 2007-08. That year, the Dukes were coming off a promising turn around in Ron Everhart’s first year at the helm and heading into his sophomore season with some highly regarded freshmen and an exciting batch of transfers who waited patiently in the wings. Sound familiar?
That team actually started the season 6 – 0 and while the first three victories came against weak competition, wins 4-6 were pretty comparable to this year’s caliber of opponents. That was en route to an ultimately disappointing 17-13, 9th place finish in the league. In the 07-08 team’s defense, the Atlantic 10 they faced was the seventh best in the country. This year, the league will be lucky to crack the top ten in terms of RPI, and the 07-08 Dukes overall 134th best SOS will likely trump this season’s by a good bit.
Part of my excitement about this year’s start revolves around the how young the team is relative to previous groups. The 18-19 incarnation has only one junior and no seniors. 07-08 had one fifth year senior in Kieron Achara, two second year JUCOs in Reggie Jackson and Gary Tucker. Heralded transfers Kojo Mensah and Shawn James already had garnered accolades playing significant minutes for smaller schools and began their Duquesne careers as juniors. I haven’t even mentioned Aaron Jackson, who ended up leading the team in assists in his third year mostly from a bench role . That’s six upperclassmen to compared to one.
This year’s coaching staff has acclimated a greater influx of new arrivals with fewer returning players than 07-08. Only Mike Lewis II and Eric Williams, Jr have returned so far from Keith Dambrot’s first trip around the bluff. Kellon Taylor will make three shortly when the football season wraps up. Four transfers and five freshmen compose the rest of the 2018-19 team. That’s a lot of rust and inexperience to shake off quickly to start 3-0 against decent teams. 07-08 had half as many incoming players and the team had veteran depth to insulate freshman Bill Clark and Damian Saunders from playing too large of a role.
I have no idea how well the Dukes will finish this season and seventeen wins wouldn’t be an exciting outcome in 2019 just as it was mildly disappointing in 2008. The 2008 squad had the benefit of being the first winning season in fourteen years which insulated them from too much criticism. While I don’t expect 100% of the current Dukes to be back, all but Lewis is eligible until 2021. Both seasons felt like the beginning of something though it’s certainly more notable this time around. The 2007-08 team had one of the best freshman classes for the Dukes in some time and a number of quality players on the horizon. For the 2018-19 and beyond, the core is already in place getting experience.
On the surface, both teams look similar. Both had an extensive influx of new players in a coach’s second season. This year, the influx is more extreme and younger. While both teams had very good players returning, 07-08 had a lot more of them. On paper, 07-08 may have been the most talented team the Dukes have fielded even if the record they closed the season with doesn’t indicate it. Still, 07-08 was an exciting season as it was the first in a long time the team enjoyed success. 18-19 won’t have the pass of fourteen years of losing to buffer them if they underperform, but this year’s group might have the more upside in the long run.