Dukes’ unsettled defense draws guard duty tonight

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Two years into his crusade to sweep aside the gold and blue and paint Western Pennsylvania red, Duquesne basketball coach Jim Ferry knows he has gotten at least one convert.

When asked who his daughter Victoria, a sophomore at Penn State, would be rooting for Wednesday night when the Dukes (3-3) play host to the Nittany Lions (7-3) at Consol Energy Center, Ferry grinned.

“Her loyalties lie with Duquesne,” Ferry replied.

Ferry and the Dukes will have their hands full with a Penn State squad averaging 81.7 points per game this season. By comparison, the Nittany Lions’ best season-scoring total in the past five years was 64.9 in 2009-10.

Penn State’s three losses this season could be categorized as “quality losses,” Ferry said, as they came against Bucknell, Pitt and Mississippi, all teams that played in the NCAA tournament in the spring.

The Nittany Lions are led by a two-headed attack of junior guards D.J. Newbill (19.1 ppg, 6.7 rpg) and Tim Frazier (18.6 ppg, 7.8 apg) that Ferry called “one of the best backcourts in the country.”

Newbill erupted for 23 points and 12 rebounds in an 84-74 win against Duquesne last December, but Frazier missed the game with a ruptured Achilles tendon that sidelined him the majority of the season.

“It’s going to be a big challenge for us to contain those two,” Ferry said. “We’ve got to throw different bodies at these guys. We’ve got to change some things.”

The Dukes will attempt to keep the guards out of the lane and force Frazier to take contested shots from the perimeter.

“It’s a lot easier said than done, that’s for sure,” Ferry said. “It’s absolutely got to be a team mindset to guard these guys; you can’t do it with just one person.”

While Penn State has found its offensive rhythm, the Dukes are far from settled defensively, allowing 81 points per game at the midpoint of the non-conference schedule.

With freshmen forwards Isaiah Watkins (knee injury) and Jordan Robinson (eligibility) yet to play and starting sophomore guard Micah Mason out with a broken hand, Ferry said his staff is “still trying to figure out what pieces fit together the best defensively.”

Watkins is expected to make his Duquesne debut Wednesday, adding much-needed depth to the frontcourt.

The Dukes spent their weeklong break since defeating Maryland Baltimore County focused more on themselves than the Nittany Lions, Ferry said. The self-evaluation, to be certain, centered on defense, as Duquesne has allowed point totals of 96, 88, 84, 84, 75 and 59 through six games.

“We’ve used this time very efficiently to get better defensively,” Ferry said. “Now, we’ve got to go out and put it to the test.”

Ferry knew before the season the team’s strength would be its up-tempo, transition offense — now averaging 81.5 points per game — but he admitted the extent of the defense’s struggles has been a surprise. “I didn’t think we’d be a very good defensive team this early, but I thought we’d be better than we are.”

Another surprise, though, has been how quickly the team, with nine new pieces this season, has jelled on offense.

“Blending all these new guys together, I thought it would take a little bit longer offensively than it has,” Ferry said. “But it hasn’t because they’re unselfish, and they share the basketball.”

Stephen J. Nesbitt: snesbitt@post-gazette.com, 412-290-2183 and Twitter @stephenjnesbitt.

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