Since I’ve been around Duquesne basketball, the intrigue of the city game has always come in anticipation of the game. The contest itself has rarely merited any interest. Anything seemed possible for Duquesne fans the morning of the game, but the results brought us crashing back to reality where Pitt was just a hell of a lot better. Most years, Duquesne fell into the schedule as just another cupcake for the Panthers and beating us didn’t help build a resume or mean much to them at all. Winning the City Game held about as more clout as defeating a school like Youngtown State even if 10,000 – 12,000 people routinely have attended. A game that was special for one fan base marked just another easy victory from the other.
This year’s contest might spark the beginning of a new era for the City Game, one where it’s competitive and relevant to both schools annually. Each program has a new coach charged with rebuilding after their predecessors largely underperformed in the position. Both programs appear to be well ahead of where they should be at this stage in either tenure. After a rocky and well documented coaching search, Duquesne hired legacy Keith Dambrot, who was also the primary subject of their coaching search to replace Ron Everhart. Just two years in and with only one player left from Jim Ferry’s roster, Dambrot has the Dukes headed in the right direction and fast. Duquesne are 4-1 with three victories against top 200 Kenpom teams, one on a neutral court despite the challenge of integrating ten new players into the lineup to start the year. We have seen chemistry issues at times especially on defense, but the new Dukes have gelled far more quickly than anyone should have anticipated.
Jeff Capel III took over his job tasked with salvaging whatever he could to keep the team together. A number of the eleven holdovers from the Kevin Stallings era declared their intention to transfer during the coaching search, and Capel managed to convince all but three to stick around. Pitt comes into the City Game with only one loss as well to Top 20 Iowa earlier in the week. Their schedule to this point had quite a few more cupcakes than Duquesne’s but they do have a win over pre-season Atlantic 10 favorite Saint Louis under their belt.
I don’t think I’ve seen the two teams as evenly matched heading into the City Game as I have this year. Pitt’s squad is a touch older and more experienced with three juniors or seniors in the starting lineup. Four Panthers are hitting for better than 40% from the three point line, an area Duquesne has struggled to defend. Freshman Xavier Johnson is leading the charge averaging almost 17 points per game. He played the entire 40 minutes against Iowa. Jared Wilson- Frame has come off the bench as a super sub and flourished in the role. He currently sits second on the team in scoring just ahead of St John’s transfer Malik Ellison who Stallings recruited but never coached in an actual game.
In the past, I’ve argued that for a rivalry to be a rivalry, the teams need to have proximity, history, parity, and play meaningful games with a mutual acknowledgement of the rivalry. The City Game has always had proximity and history, but it lacked the next two components mentioned above. This iteration’s even matchup should set the stage for competitive series moving forward. With both rosters loaded with underclassmen, we should watch the programs grow together over the next several years. Both schools will expect to compete for at large bids soon enough and this game played on a neutral court will quickly become a meaningful resume building prize for both. There is no telling whether or not Pitt fans will accept it as a special game, but I think if its competitive and meaningful, they will eventually especially if Duquesne runs off a string of wins.
The City Game is about to change and change in a big way. The schools are in a similar state, appear evenly matched and look as if they’ve emerged from turmoil heading in the right direction. We have a chance of this game re-entering the realm of a true rivalry with the last Friday of November or first Friday of December circled on everyone’s calendar. I saw the Dukes as a favorite in the City Game preseason, but it’s moved towards a coin flip. I think it’ll stay a coin flip well into the future, and if you’re not excited by that as either a Pitt or Duquesne fan, I don’t know what would excite you.