Duquesne's real march to March starts tonight -- and the Dukes' steepest tests might just be the first few steps they take early in the Atlantic 10 Conference season.
The Dukes (9-5) open conference play with a visit from Richmond (11-4) at 7 p.m. today at the Palumbo Center.
Calling this game a tough test? Sure, that would be accurate.
Calling this game the start of a stretch that could serve to make or break Duquesne's season? In a sense, that might be accurate, too.
• Game: Duquesne (9-5) vs. Richmond (11-4), 7 p.m. today, A.J. Palumbo Center.
• TV, radio, Internet: KQV-AM (1410); GoDuquesne.com.
• Duquesne: Has lost to Richmond 12 consecutive times. ... Is playing just its second game in 14 days; it's the fourth in 10 days for Richmond. ... Junior swingman Damian Saunders is ranked second in the country in rebounding at 12.9 per game. ... Holding opponents to 37.4 percent from the field, the stingiest defense since the 1956-57 team held the opposition to 35.5 percent.
• Richmond: Strength of schedule is 47th after playing seven of its past 10 games against top-80 RPI teams. Went 7-3 in that stretch. ... Every starter averages at least 23 minutes, led by junior guard Kevin Anderson, who plays 36.7 minutes per game.
• Hidden stat: Richmond is the only Atlantic 10 school Duquesne coach Ron Everhart has not defeated in his four seasons with the Dukes.
As of yesterday, four of the next six teams on Duquesne's schedule had a Rating Percentage Index (RPI) ranking of 40th or better in the country.
The RPI is a mathematical measurement of a team's strength, and a lower number is a determination of a better team.
Duquesne's RPI ranking was 88th, while Richmond was at 26 and the Dukes' next opponent, Dayton, was at 24. Rhode Island, which Duquesne plays Jan. 20, was ranked fifth and Xavier, which the Dukes visit Jan. 28, was at 40.
"They are all really important," Duquesne coach Ron Everhart said of his team's 16 conference games that run from tonight until March 5. "We try not to get caught up in the ramifications of each game, like, 'if we win this one, this will happen,' or 'we are in a position here that, if we win this one, that will happen.'
"To me, those are all just distractions. The best way to handle it, honestly, is to look at each game as being really important, no matter who it is, no matter where their RPI is, no matter what factors are involved."
The factor tonight is that Richmond will come into the Palumbo Center with one of the best guard tandems in the league. Six-foot junior Kevin Anderson is averaging 18.5 points per game and counterpart David Gonzalvez, a 6-4 senior, scores 12.9 per game.
That's not all they have, though. Of the Spiders, Everhart said, "They are real good," as he was watching video in his office Monday afternoon.
The last time the Spiders took the floor, they went to Wake Forest and pushed the game into overtime before losing, 74-68.
"And those kids from Richmond walked off the floor disappointed that they didn't win," Everhart said. "They are a team that, if they are playing well, they can play with just about anyone in the country. This is going to be a huge challenge for us."
Duquesne junior swingman Damian Saunders, who leads the country with 11 double-doubles, understands the heightened level of importance when the season turns to conference play.
"The excitement is that everybody is ready to prove what we can do again," Saunders said, alluding to Duquesne's run to the conference tournament championship last year.
"Basically, we have to get everybody back on the same page on how we started the year off, even though it was non-conference."
Duquesne won its first five games of the season and six of its first seven. But since a win Nov. 29 against Radford, the Dukes are 4-4, most recently coming off a loss Dec. 30 at Old Dominion.
"I know how hard we've competed," Everhart said. "And I'd like to think, that because our kids see that the league schedule is rolling around, that they will compete even that much harder from here on out."
NOTE -- Sophomore swingman Melquan Bolding, who had surgery Nov. 17 to repair a fractured right wrist, was cleared yesterday to return to practice. "He's made great progress and hopefully that will continue," Everhart said, who did not indicate when Bolding would return to the lineup.
Colin Dunlap can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1459.