Ovie Soko hates losing so much, he had to stop himself mid-sentence last week after his team fell just short of the Pittsburgh Basketball Club Pro-Am championship.
If Soko gets that worked up about a summer league game, it might be tough to imagine how he felt watching from the bench last season as his Duquesne teammates won one game in the Atlantic 10 Conference and eight overall.
But if his performance and those of his fellow Dukes in a league usually highlighted by Pitt players and former local stars is any indication, second-year coach Jim Ferry's rebuilding project on "The Bluff" is in full swing.
"We're just not going to back down from no one," Soko said after he and four Duquesne teammates lost, 108-101, to the PGT Trucking team with four Panthers, including league MVP Talib Zanna.
"Coach Ferry, we just try and take after his mindset and his attitude. He's a real tough guy so we just try to play the same way."
Soko went head to head with Zanna - almost literally after Zanna took offense to a hard foul and both players had to be restrained by teammates and officials - and finished with 20 points and seven rebounds. It was a modest summer league performance for him, given his averages of 22.3 points and 12.4 rebounds going into the final.
Soko, a 6-foot-8 transfer from Alabama-Birmingham who used his athleticism, strength and mean streak to earn all-league honors, only has one year to make his mark at Duquesne after leaving UAB before his senior season. But that hasn't stopped him from taking on a leadership role this summer.
"I appreciate him. He's kind of like a role model," said forward L.G. Gill, one of the Dukes' freshmen who played alongside Soko on The Lair team. "Hopefully, when I get older, I end up being the type of player he is. He's a great role model for our team, and he's been out here leading us this whole time."
Gill and guards Desmond Ridenour and Tra'Vaughn White - who also played for The Lair - are three of 10 Dukes players who either weren't on the roster last season or were ineligible. Just one player, senior Jerry Jones, is left from former coach Ron Everhart's tenure.
"We knew coming into this league that people come to watch the Pitt players and the pro players, but we came out here with a mindset that we were going to show everybody we come second to no one," said sophomore guard Jeremiah Jones, who started 22 games last season and scored a team-high 28 points in the pro-am championship.
Jerry and Jeremiah Jones, plus sophomore point guard Derrick Colter, are the only returning contributors after a slew of transfers this offseason. Colter was a rare bright spot in Ferry's first year, leading the Dukes with 13.5 points per game, and now he'll have a legitimate inside threat if Soko's summer dominance translates to the regular season.
"It fits right into how coach lets us play," Soko said of his offensive skill and athleticism.
He likely will be needed in the post for a Dukes team that has three freshmen big men but plans to utilize an up-tempo style.
"Wherever coach needs me to play, I'm going to play," Soko said. "I'm going to play really hard, that's what I'm going to bring every day."
And from what he has seen this summer, Soko expects the same from his freshmen teammates.
"I love 'em. Being an older guy, I didn't know what to expect in this upcoming year, but I'm happy with my young guys," he said. "They play hard, they play with heart, and I like that. Especially coming off a losing season, those are the type of guys that are going to change the program around, the young guys that coach brought in, because they really do play hard."
Changing the program isn't a challenge underestimated by Soko's "young guys," either.
"Nobody in the A-10's going to respect us this year coming in," Gill said. "I mean, they were like, 1-15 [in conference] last year? Nobody's going to respect us, so we have to keep working and prove everybody wrong."
Brian Batko: firstname.lastname@example.org.