By Carter Chapley
St. Louis, MO
A New Year and a new type of Billikens basketball awaits Thursday evening. The Bills have flown to Pittsburgh to kick off their conference schedule against Duquesne and so begins the long march to Brooklyn where they will battle for A-10 supremacy.
Opening the New Year on the road, the Billikens face a Dukes team that is in a sort of limbo in terms of where they stand in both the national and conference spotlight. Despite very little pomp and circumstance the Dukes raced out to a 10-0 record and became one of the final four teams in the nation to be undefeated. They quickly rose in the public and the official rankings, coming in as high as #20 in the NCAA’s NET ranking.
The only problem with that, was that Duquesne played an extremely easy schedule relative to their A-10 counterparts. They have yet to play even one top 100 team in the KenPom ranking and have not had a true test of any nature to hang their hat on. Through those 10 games, their best win was a neutral site game against #115 Indiana State, and only 3 of those games were against top 200 opponents.
For transparency sake, I have been critical of the attention and praise Duquesne has received to this point but to their credit, when faced with weak opponents they have indeed dominated like a team in their position should. At the very least they were assuring themselves by winning outright.
That all changed very quickly.
In their final two games before the New Year, Duquesne came back to earth a little bit and dropped two bad losses bringing their record down to 10-2. The first to the University of Alabama-Birmingham and the second to Marshall. Both games the Dukes were truly expected to win.
This leaves Duquesne’s true form a sort of mystery. They are undoubtedly a ‘good’ team, yet they have not tested themselves and fell just short of the finish line. To what degree they are “good” is what lies at the root of curiosity surrounding this team. It would not be radical to say that SLU is by far the best team they have faced this season and will be the definitive answer to the test they have yet to encounter.
SLU on the other hand ventures into a game which can easily be defined as a “must win”, should they want to keep their hypothetical at large NCAA bid alive. Given the schedule, there are only so many places the Billikens can afford a loss down the stretch. This is not one of them. The Billikens are not the statistical favorite given how dominant some of the Duke’s wins have been. But it is apparent the Billikens should have the upper hand in this game and will be the popular favorite to win. The Bills will have to make a statement to the conference with a road win to start the season.
The location of this game is a tad curious as the Duquesne’s regular home, the AJ Palumbo Center, is under renovations. That will leave the Dukes without a home for the 2019-2020 season. They will play home games at three different locations this season. Local experts believe the most ideal in terms of drawing home crowds is at PPG Paints Arena, which is home to the Pittsburgh Penguins and the most local to Duquesne’s fan base. The other arenas include La Roche University, and the location of this game at Robert Morris University’s UMPC Events Center. Both of which are far less centrally located.
The unusual home location for this road game may be advantageous for the Billikens. Conference road games can be an extremely/extraordinarily hostile atmosphere that can challenge even the toughest opponents. But the lack of centrally located campus site, or regular home environment means some of that atmosphere simply won’t exist. Additionally, this will be the first time the Dukes play at the UMPC Events Center so the familiarity with the building will equal across the board for both teams. It is not a Neutral Site game, but it will likely feel far less than a true road game in terms of the hysteria in the building.
On the court, the Dukes are led by a short rotation of highly capable players who do a lot of things well. Guards Sincere Carry and Tavian Dunn-Martin lead the team from the backcourt. Both are capable shooters and passers who can force you to pressure them outside. Carry is the clear engine of the offense, but he is supplemented by Marcus Weathers at the power forward position who is a dominant paint force and will be a fun matchup with Hasahn French.
It would be wrong to ignore the ability of the Duquesne defense, however, as noted earlier, the competition they have played is weak and has boosted the profile of the D. So, an asterisk to the praise. The Dukes D is currently ranked above the Billikens in the KenPom’s defensive efficiency metric and has been ferocious to this point. They held Lipscomb to just 36 points and have held opponents to 60 points or less in 50% of their games. Marcus Weathers is a game changer on defense thanks to his length and athleticism and leads his team with 17 steals. On the other block, Michael Hughes, who is a center by default despite being just 6’8”, leads the team with 30 blocks and has been a true rim protector and shot changer.
The Billikens will counter this with what they do best. Grit, tenacity, and physicality. The Dukes simply have not seen a team as strong physically as SLU and the Bills will ideally be able to throw around their bodies and create some chaos. They can wear down the Dukes and win the battle of attrition. If they shoot the three well enough to force Duquesne to spread the floor out and respect the perimeter, the Billikens will have a clear path to grabbing their first win of the A-10 season.
SLU tips off from Pittsburg at 6pm Central time. The game will be available on ESPN+, on the radio locally via 106.5 The Arch and nationally via TuneIn. The Billikens will return home Sunday January 5th when they host UMass.