UMass set to ‘duke’ it out

By Eli Rosenswaike, Collegian Staff

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Brian Tedder

Two teams that play a similar brand of basketball – and also share a similar need to improve their respective postseason r’eacute;sum’eacute;s – convene in Pittsburgh, Pa., tonight for an Atlantic 10 matchup with March Madness implications.

Massachusetts and Duquesne enter tonight’s tipoff at the A.J. Palumbo Center as the two highest-scoring teams in the conference – and two of several solid A-10 squads that are fighting for a possible postseason spot.

UMass (13-6, 2-3 A-10) appears to be in a more dire situation than the Dukes (13-5, 2-3 A-10), having lost two straight conference games. The Minutemen fell to Saint Joseph’s for the second time this season and then followed that with a home loss against conference-leading Xavier.

Duquesne had lost two straight A-10 games by a combined three points – on the road against Rhode Island and Fordham – before winning at home against St. Bonaventure and George Washington entering tonight’s matchup. The Dukes are 9-1 at the Palumbo Center this season, with their only loss coming against then-No. 12 and undefeated Pittsburgh on Dec. 5.

Both teams love to run up and down the floor, creating an abundance of fast-break opportunities – and the final score will likely resemble last season’s meeting at the Mullins Center (UMass 101, Duquesne 87). This season, the Minutemen rank last in the A-10 in scoring defense, allowing 78.4, 4.9 more points than the team directly ahead of them. Part of that, though, is due to the tempo that UMass plays – which creates more possessions than an average NCAA game.

Despite leading the conference with 86 points per game, Duquesne’s leading-scorer (Shawn James, 14.6) doesn’t crack the top 15 in the A-10 in scoring. The Dukes feature a very well-balanced offensive attack with eight players averaging at least seven points per game – including three in double figures. Strangely enough, they rank at the bottom in the conference in 3-point field goal percentage, at 31.1 percent.

Other than their season-opening win over Howard, 129-59, no Dukes player has scored over 22 points in a game – despite the fact that they have scored over 90 points as a team six times this year. Duquesne regularly uses an 11-man rotation, with all of those players averaging more than 10 minutes per game.

UMass coach Travis Ford said he won’t make as many substitutions as the Dukes do, citing that it’s too big of a drop-off in production when he does. But he did say that he was considering altering the lineup a little bit, and that it’s something that the coaching staff will definitely address.

“They’ve got more experience and depth than we do,” Ford said about tonight’s opponent before Monday’s practice. “They have just as talented individuals as we have. It’s not going to be easy, that’s for sure. They are a very talented team.”

The biggest challenge for the Minutemen will likely be contending with James in the low-post. The 6-foot-10 junior big man leads the conference in blocks (4.18 per game), helping the Dukes limit opponents to the lowest field goal percentage (40.1 percent) in the A-10.

“I don’t think there is any strategy you can use,” Ford said, commenting on how his players approach facing James in the middle. “You just better know he’s there. If he’s around you, you better find the open man because your shot is probably not going to get off.”

James’s 7.3 rebounding average paces the team and Duquesne’s 40.1 per game are tops in the conference. The Dukes also lead the conference in assists per game (19) and steals (10 per game). UMass is second in blocks (136) to Duquesne (143), but the Minutemen hold the slight edge in per-game average.

“Probably more so than any other team in the country, their defense fuels their offense,” Ford said.

Offense will certainly not be at a premium tonight between these two teams. But the team that puts the bigger emphasis on defense will likely leave happy.

Eli Rosenswaike can be reached at [email protected]