PITTSBURGH (AP) – The campuses for Pittsburgh and Duquesne lie barely two miles apart.
The talent gap on the basketball court has looked considerably wider over the last dozen years. And while second-year Dukes coach Jim Ferry believes it has shrunk, he’s still well aware his team is a decided underdog heading into Saturday’s annual City Game.
“Within time, it is going to be (closer),” he said. “That’s what we’re trying to do. We’re getting better and that’s the goal, I want to play this game every single year and we’re going to get to the point where we’re going to beat them. It’s eventually going to happen.”
Doing it for just the second time this millennium, however, might be difficult. The Panthers (6-0) have been dominant during the first three weeks of the season. They ripped through four rounds of the Progressive Legends Classic, blitzing Texas Tech and Stanford in the semifinals and finals earlier this week by an average of 22 points.
Perhaps just as impressive as Pitt’s perfect start is the way the Panthers are winning. Long known for its overpowering man-to-man defense, Pitt is delivering on coach Jamie Dixon’s preseason promise to become a more dynamic offensive team. The Panthers are averaging 81.3 points per game and shooting 48 percent from the floor, a breakneck pace for a team that has been efficient but not exactly explosive during Dixon’s decade on the sideline.
“So we shoot the ball a little better,” Dixon said. “We make free throws at a little higher rate and we’ve always had good passers. That’s pretty consistent this year as well. We’ve always been unselfish. I think we’re pushing the ball a little more. But I think we’re getting baskets off of turnovers more so this year.”
Having one of the more versatile lineups in the country helps. The 10-deep Panthers can throw out different lineups based on matchups. Pitt has six players between 6-foot-5 and 6-8, all of whom can knock down jumpers or get into the lane and score.
It’s a luxury that remains unattainable at Duquesne. The Dukes use an eight-man rotation, one that could be even tighter now that sophomore guard Micah Mason is out 4-6 weeks with a broken (right) shooting hand. He joins freshmen Isaiah Watkins and Jordan Robinson on the sideline. Watkins remains out while recovering from minor left knee surgery while Robinson has yet to be cleared by the NCAA.
That leaves an undersized lineup even more undermanned, though the Dukes don’t believe they’re overmatched. Players on both sides face each other regularly in a local summer league, where the Dukes believe they hold their own.
Doing it in front of more than 10,000 people in a decidedly higher profile setting, however, is another matter entirely.
“They’ve beaten us how many years?” Duquesne forward Jeremiah Jones said. “It comes to a point where you have to take that personal.”
Something Duquesne insists it has done over the last week as part of what Ferry calls “10 days of defense.” The Dukes have been scattershot in their effort during the first few weeks of the season. Ferry believes his team finally found a nice balance in a 70-59 victory over Albany on Nov. 20. The Dukes will have to do it again if they want to have any chance against a team that has a chance to be undefeated by the time ACC play rolls around in January.
Not that the Panthers prefer looking that far ahead. They are encouraged by their solid start, particularly the play of Patterson. Arguably the best all-around player on the team, Patterson is starting to become comfortable with the idea of scoring when he wants, not just when it’s required. Patterson is averaging a team-high 17.0 points per game, well above the 10.0 he averaged during his junior season.
“”He’s always had skills_can pass and shoot,” Dixon said. “He’s just a better athlete and in better shape right now. That comes from physical maturity and mental maturity. He’s taken that challenge. We set a goal for him and he reached it. It’s been a battle and he’s gotten to it.”
Patterson, like his teammates would prefer to finish his college career unbeaten against the Dukes. Yet Duquesne has proven to be a tough out. The Dukes hung around well into the second half of a 96-83 loss at West Virginia earlier this month, and that was despite significant struggles on defense.
Ferry doesn’t think that will be a problem on Saturday as his program tries to take major strides toward relevance both in the city and beyond.
“This game for us, it’s a measuring stick,” Ferry said. “It’s huge for our development.”