Dukes expect grind as league play begins

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The Atlantic 10 Conference has been one of the better non-power leagues in college basketball and has been a grind for its members to get through.

And that was before this season when the conference added Butler and Virginia Commonwealth, two teams that certainly will raise the profile of the league even higher.

Of course, that also means it will make the climb for teams in the middle or bottom of the conference to get to the top much steeper.

That's why Duquesne coach Jim Ferry looks at the journey on which his Dukes are about to embark -- they begin conference play Wednesday at Fordham -- as overwhelming.

"When you look at our league, it is going to be tough for everyone," Ferry said. "Traditionally, the Atlantic 10 has been a very strong league but then you add in those two teams -- two teams that are Final Four-level programs in recent years -- and you still have the Xaviers and Temples and Daytons, it is rough. It is really a grind every night and is tough.

"That's going to be good in the long run because the strength of our league will help all of the members raise their profile because the competition is so good, but night to night there will be times it won't be really that much fun."

To demonstrate the high-profile nature of some of the opponents the Dukes will be playing, two games -- Jan. 19 against VCU and Feb. 9 against Xavier -- will be played at Consol Energy Center, where the Dukes play host to marquee opponents.

Duquesne athletic director Greg Amodio has said the Dukes would like to move some games annually to Consol Energy Center for a variety of reasons.

But he stressed that it has to be with the right opponents in order to justify the move -- and the Atlantic 10 has enough marquee programs to ensure they will be able to continue to play some league games there.

Ferry said that the key for the Dukes to survive this season will be to make sure they win as many home games as possible and then play well enough on the road to have a chance to win some games.

But he also believes the Dukes are going to be up to the challenge because they played a very good non-conference schedule and played enough games against power conference teams and enough road games that they are battle tested.

Duquesne played Big East members Pitt and Georgetown, Penn State from the Big Ten and West Virginia from the Big 12, and also played six road games.

"Our schedule is pretty aggressive for where we are at as a program," Ferry said. "We [played] a lot of different teams from different conferences. Pitt is obviously one of the strongest programs in the country, West Virginia has been to a Final Four recently, Georgetown is Georgetown -- those teams prepare you for what we will see in the Atlantic 10."

Although Ferry isn't satisfied that the Dukes are 7-7, especially since they have lost three of their past four games, they have actually gotten off to a reasonably good start given how much rebuilding needs to be done to get the program to the level necessary to compete in the conference.

Duquesne starts three freshmen in most games and had only two players with significant experience returning, so it is an inexperienced team and one that is learning a new system under a first-year coach.

But the Dukes played Georgetown tough before losing and beat West Virginia, and have had enough success sprinkled in between their losses that they go into the Atlantic 10 schedule with some confidence.

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Paul Zeise: pzeise@post-gazette.com or Twitter: @paulzeise.


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