To open the 2019-2020 college basketball season at Duquesne University, the men’s and women’s programs worked out a double-header on Tuesday night in PPG Paints Arena, just a stone’s throw away from the edge of campus in downtown Pittsburgh. Fans were treated to both contests for the price of one when the men tipped off with Princeton at 6 p.m., followed by the women hosting Kent State immediately after.
The Dukes’ home court is under complete renovation, getting a new look, a new name – now UPMC Cooper Fieldhouse – and a whole new fan experience for Duquesne basketball starting next season. Construction has the two programs competing at various sites around Pittsburgh, but the closest and most prestigious of which is PPG Paints Arena, home of the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins.
While a venue that holds 19,758, and gets routinely close to it for hockey games, seems a bit spacious for a basketball program averaging 2,308 fans per game last year, it played home this week to a clearly overlooked treasure in the community. Regardless of where in the city the teams are playing, or whom they’re playing, Duquesne basketball offers a unique and near-priceless opportunity for all hoops lovers. From those reading who didn’t even know where Duquesne was until I told you, to those who follow the Dukes in any capacity, questioning that statement is fair. Simply, the university offers something others can’t when it comes to taking in a game.
Duquesne is a basketball classroom.
A classroom for young ballers hoping to run the court in high school and for varsity contributors wanting to take their game to the next level.
A classroom for aspiring officials to watch the mechanics and flow of accomplished referees and for even the most experienced to study the routines of those running the show at the highest stage.
A classroom for rookie and seasoned coaches to not only see how Division I skippers steer their ships, but to get close enough to hear and interpret how they’re doing it.
Through a New Lens
Sometimes, not being the biggest show in town is an advantage. When a building is less than a fifth full, it can seem quiet. Duquesne home games might be missing the constant buzz of a packed house, but if you tune your ear correctly, they’re alive with a symphony of communication, emotion and wisdom to educate anyone willing to listen. When women’s head coach Dan Burt shouts at his players, “Communicate!” not only do they hear him, we do, too. In response, off-ball defenders talk their partners through motion with confidence, cutters are identified early and picked up quickly by the backside. It’s cause and effect in action, and the flow between coach and players are on display as bits of proof that the system works.
At Duquesne, fans aren’t risking altitude sickness just to be in the same building with some of the country’s best athletes, only to squint at action they would be better suited watching from home. Instead, they’re welcomed into the game in an intimate way. Fans have room to get close to the court and feel individually connected, not just serving as a face in the crowd. Those with hoop dreams of their own can get down to floor level, identify athletes with a style or skill set they want to emulate and study from these tutors on the spot.
Tall kids in Pittsburgh, please go watch Baylee Steele and Laia Sole master the paint, work to create from distance and terrorize opponents through quick flurries of blocks and steals. Want to play fast and aggressive with a full set of tools to work with? Amanda Kalin runs a clinic on getting smart shots off, crashing the boards and locking up her opponent. On the men’s side, Sincere Carry is uncovering himself as a real dark horse player in the A-10. On opening night, Carry quickly found his groove and connected on 10-of-14 from the field – 3-of-7 beyond the arc – collected five assists, five boards and a steal to polish off a well-rounded night of contributions. The most impressive factor about all four athletes is their ability to get out of their teammates’ ways. Nine men and seven women added to the scorebook for the Dukes on Tuesday, highlighting team-first performances that all young athletes can learn from.
For those of us who chose to put on the stripes, blow the whistle and take the nightly abuse, Duquesne home games also offer an up close and personal masterclass on the art of managing top-notch basketball. Being able to hear the exchanges between coaches and officials offers a lot of perspective on how to calmly manage these delicate interactions. Yet, even the officials at the Division I level aren’t without fault, and watching their mistakes from a direct vantage point and how they move on from them is a graduate-level course on professionalism.
Between the six referees who worked the games, there were no two that looked, flowed or made calls exactly alike. Just like players finding role models to follow on the court, officials should be flocking to schools like Duquesne for a chance to study from those who have climbed the proverbial latter.
Learning to Trust
The come-from-behind win for the men wasn’t clearly in the works through the first half. At the post-game press conference, head coach Keith Dambrot noted he was caught off guard by his team coming together, but cited two-way trust during adjustments from their opponent as the reason for it.
“I thought we were disjointed,” Dambrot reflected. “We weren’t very smart. We didn’t play very well together. You know, they played Russian roulette a little bit. They went under the ball screen, daring [Sincere Carry] to shoot. I told him at the first TV timeout of the second half, ‘Look, if they go under, just let it rip, man. I’ll live with it,’ because he’s a good player. You can’t let them psychologically impair you because of the way they’re playing you. He’s a good enough player that you have to make them pay for going under the ball screen, and he did. They basically dared him to shoot because he’s so hard to keep in front otherwise.”
The adjustments were apparent and the coach’s confidence in his players was contagious enough for them to believe it, too. When the shots weren’t connecting, Dambrot reassured his players, like Carry, to let it fly. It’s a great lesson for any coach to not second guess your adjustments when your talent isn’t meeting expectations. Instead, positive reinforcement made all the difference when swinging the momentum of a game to result in a 27-point win.
It shouldn’t be taken for granted that Duquesne competes in the A-10 in basketball. Prestigious and exciting programs like Xavier, Dayton, St. Louis and VCU make their way to campus at least every other year, not to mention the rest of a parity-filled conference that produces tournament contenders from all corners. Not sold on the Dukes? There are hundreds of the game’s best coming to a gym in your town. Go watch and learn from them. Then, hang around after the game and go pick the brains of those you just watched in action. The players and coaches will be back out within 15-20 minutes of the game ending and a strong majority of the time they’re nothing short of willing to talk shop with the people who care to support their passion.
All Parts Equal
Tuesday night didn’t play out as another night of separation between spectator and sport. As the men put in work, the women’s team planted themselves with a front row view of the action. As fans would call out to the ladies, they’d make their way over one-by-one to greet the eager faces who came early for a good seat. Once the men were done, after quick showers and the collection of their individual post-game pizzas, the team was back out in the arena to hug parents, sign autographs and share smiles and daps with relieved supporters. Questions were asked, affirmations of support were swapped and players were blanketed in love by ones in attendance for the ones who were not.
As the women’s game presser came to a close at the end of the night, a sulking Coach Burt, affected by his team’s narrow loss, leaned toward the mic to make one final remark.
“Thank you for supporting women’s basketball. I appreciate you being here this late,” he said.
Those few words were another sign that the people of Duquesne love what they do and where they’re doing it. They were words that made a room of media types feel connected to the coach through a common passion. Burt’s statement eased any tension that could come along with a last-second heartbreaker. As a true professor of basketball, he created another space that felt safe to ask questions, interact and ultimately learn more about the game.
Whether you’ve come to expand your knowledge or just check another game off your list, once you come through the tunnel and into the city of Pittsburgh, you’re welcomed to a completely one-of-a-kind basketball opportunity. Winding your way through the labyrinth of the narrow city stimulates your senses, getting you in the mind frame for action at a fast pace. The feeling upon arrival will be no different when the UPMC Cooper Fieldhouse re-opens on the other side of campus. Improved facilities will only help build on the purity of Duquesne basketball, bringing the fans back into close quarters with all new bells and whistles to attract more bodies into seats and highly regarded recruits onto rosters.
While it’s not the only environment of its type in the country, Duquesne provides an interactive experience of sorts for the Pittsburgh basketball community. If you’re interested in basketball for the sheer entertainment value, there’s professional leagues for you to watch. If you’re a student of the game in any other fashion – player, coach, ref, fan and beyond – you should be taking full advantage of opportunities like these in your own backyard. Some of the mid-majors out there may not give you the same pageantry and earth-moving crowd intensity night in and night out that you can find in the high-end of the power leagues. Yet, they will share countless lessons that can educate any degree of game goer if you’re willing to receive them.