ST. BONAVENTURE, N.Y. – Since Duquesne hired Keith Dambrot as their head coach in 2017, St. Bonaventure owns a 10-1 record against the Dukes. In that lone loss, Mark Schmidt’s Bonnies suffered a second-half meltdown and succumbed in overtime in February 2020. But do not let this impressive stretch think that the Dukes will roll over again. This year’s Duquesne squad is revamped, reloaded, and has put the conference on notice, despite opening the season at 15th in the Atlantic 10 preseason poll.
“Every game is different,” Schmidt said when discussing his team’s recent success against Bona’s longtime rival. “We have had really good players. That’s one of the reasons why [we have played well against Duquesne]. And we have had some very close games with them. We have had some luck; the ball has bounced our way—we have played so many close games. You don’t read anything into it. We have gotten lucky in some of these games, but we have also played well in some games too. But they’re a very good team.”
Both teams will lack familiarity when the Bonnies and the Dukes hit the floor at 7 p.m. Wednesday. Bona ranks dead last in the country in minutes continuity from a season ago, while the Dukes rank 340th in all Division I. Hence Schmidt’s point that recent history does not matter.
Like Schmidt, Dambrot found athletic, veteran players who could fit into his system. Dambrot scored big in the transfer portal, as his Dukes lead the league in 3-point shooting and average 76.0 points per game (PPG), good for second in the Atlantic 10.
This team can flat-out score, as four players average 9.9 PPG or more.
Dae Dae Grant, who transferred to Duquesne from Miami (Ohio), leads the team in scoring at 16.0 PPG. The 6-foot-2 guard has scored in double-figures 15 times this season, including four games in which he drained five or more 3-pointers. Grant shoots at a 42.7% clip from beyond the arc. He most recently went 4-of-7 from 3-point range at St. Joseph’s, a 92-80 Duquesne victory.
Grant’s play has helped lead Duquesne to a 13-5 record. A season ago, the Dukes won just six games. They have more than doubled their win total by the middle of January, a pretty impressive mark for Dambrot and co.
The Dukes suffered their first loss of the year on the road at Kentucky in early November. They then rattled off six straight victories, which included impressive wins over Colgate and UC Santa Barbara, before losing to Marshall and New Mexico State.
Duquesne currently has a 3-2 record in the Atlantic 10, as they beat Rhode Island and VCU, and won at St. Joseph’s. The Dukes lost at Dayton and faltered at Richmond, losing to the Spiders by two after leading by 15 at the half.
Yet, Grant has not been the only player who helped bring Duquesne back to relevance. Dambrot employs a deep rotation, in which ten players average at least 12 minutes per game.
But the backcourt has catalyzed this team.
“They’re talented with good veteran guys,” Schmidt said about this Duquesne team. “They brought in skilled veteran players. They have very good guards; they’re really long and athletic. They’re probably the best offensive team in the league. They’re a really good team that goes downhill. They defend and rebound. [Keith Dambrot] has done a good job bringing in these players.”
Jimmy Clark III, the 6-foot-3 guard from Covington, Georgia, plays alongside Grant in the backcourt. Clark can score, too, as he averages 12.4 PPG. In the 79-70 victory over VCU on Jan. 4, he poured in 26 points. Ironically, Clark began his career at VCU, but Mike Rhoades suspended him—and ultimately removed him from the team—for violating team rules. To see him notch his career high against his former club strikes a sense of poetic justice.
Clark also has recorded 36 steals on the season, tied for first in the Atlantic 10 with St. Bonaventure’s Kyrell Luc.
Inside, R.J. Gunn and Joe Reece operate as formidable forwards.
Gunn, who missed most of the non-conference slate with a foot injury, stands at 6-foot-7 and hails from Columbia, South Carolina. In his eight games played this year, Gunn averages 11.3 PPG. On Jan. 11, at St. Joseph’s, Gunn scored 26 points while pouring in 5-of-7 from beyond the arc. He has drained at least three 3-pointers in his last four games. Gunn was a big reason why the Dukes scored 60 first-half points at Hawk Hill—the most a Duquense team has scored in a half in 54 years.
Reece, the 6-foot-8 senior from St. Louis, Missouri, averages 9.9 PPG and shoots 33.3% from 3-point range. He also had a terrific game at St. Joseph’s, as he finished with 18 points. He shot 5-of-8 from the field and made all six free-throw attempts.
Duquesne takes good care of the basketball, thus giving them ample opportunity to score more points.
The Dukes rank second in the conference in turnover margin and assist/turnover ratio.
They also rebound well too.
But the key for Schmidt’s club will be defending the 3-point line, something that they have succeeded in doing all season. According to KenPom, Bona ranks 16th nationally in defending the perimeter. Opposing teams have shot just 28.9% from the arc this season against the Bonnies. Although that number slips up to 31.8% when accounting for just conference play.
“That’s what we have to do if we are going to win. If we don’t defend the three-point line, we will not win—they’ll kill us,” Schmidt admitted. “We must keep the ball in front of us, so they cannot drive and kick. They do a great job of driving and kicking; that’s why they average 15 assists per game. Duquesne is talented.”
No team has made more than nine 3-pointers against the Bonnies this season in the nine games at the Reilly Center. Southern Indiana drained nine on Nov. 22, but most came when the game was already in hand. Bona won with ease, 80-66.
Two other teams have made eight: Florida Gulf Coast on Dec. 16 and George Mason on Jan. 4.
Florida Gulf Coast handed Bona its only home loss of the season, mainly because the Brown and White offense turned ice cold in the second half.
Nonetheless, the Bonnies will need to continue to do a good job closing out on the perimeter against Duquesne. What makes the Dukes challenging to defend is that all five players on the floor shoot the ball well from the outside.
This also makes rebounding imperative. Duquesne attempts 39% of their field goals from beyond the arc. 36.4% of their points come from the 3-point shot. The Dukes love to shoot it, so Bona will need to corral those long defensive rebounds from those outside shots to prevent Duquesne from getting any second-chance opportunities.
“When we defend, rebound, take care of the basketball, and make our foul shots, we’re a pretty good team,” Schmidt said. “When we don’t, we are not very good.”
The Bonnies are also a pretty good team on their home floor.
Daryl Banks III, who leads the team in scoring at 16.3 PPG, shoots 47% from 3-point range on Bob Lanier Court. The redshirt junior guard from Somerset, New Jersey, is averaging 20.7 PPG at home. He loves feeding off the home crowd, which will undoubtedly be in a frenzy Wednesday as the students are back on campus.
Chad Venning, the St. Bonaventure big man who stands at 6-foot-10, also enjoys playing at home. He has shot 56.8% from the floor while averaging 11.6 PPG in games played at the Reilly Center. Keep an eye on Venning against Duquesne. The Dukes will try to lure him out of the paint to create a mismatch, but Bona will need Venning to stand firm in the paint. He must have a big night on the glass too.
The same goes for Yann Farell and Anquan Hill, two of Bonaventure’s best rebounders.
Farell, the 6-foot-6 freshman from Gabon, has struggled lately, but that does not take away from his ability to grab rebounds in bunches. Farell grabs 7.6 boards per game on his home floor, but he has grabbed just seven total over his past two games. Since scoring 22 points and grabbing ten rebounds in the New Year’s Eve victory over UMass, Farell has scored just six total points while not securing more than six rebounds in any of those four games.
But Farell is a freshman. He’s a special player who is still learning the system and gaining confidence.
Hill is also growing comfortable with Schmidt’s system. He has gained a lot of confidence as of late too.
Against Richmond, Hill grabbed a season-high ten rebounds against the Spiders while also finishing with a +13 rating, a team-high. His plus/minus rating has been terrific as of late: +15 at Rhode Island and +15 against George Mason. Bona lost to Rhody by a point but squeaked by Mason, 73-69.
“He’s making that transition from a 5-man to a 4-man, which is not easy,” Schmidt said of Hill. “The 5-man always plays with his back to the basket. He’s coming along. He’s not all the way there, like most of our guys, but he’s learning. That transition is tough, but he’s making it. It shows that he made some progress against Richmond. Hopefully, he can continue to progress against Duquesne. He’s long and athletic.”
Another player trending upwards for the Bonnies is Moses Flowers, the 6-foot-4 guard who transferred to St. Bonaventure from Hartford.
In conference play, Flowers has averaged 14.2 PPG while shooting 61% from the floor overall and 47% from beyond the arc. He has accounted for 55% of Bonaventure’s scoring off the bench.
“He’s learning the system too,” Schmidt said when discussing Flowers. “They are all, in essence in freshmen. Some freshmen learn more quickly than others. [Flowers] got hurt in the preseason, which slowed him down a bit. It’s hard when you’re not playing well; that slows down your confidence. But in the last few games, he’s done what we need him to do. He’s come off the bench and given us a burst. He’s playing with much more confidence, which is a funny thing. Once you have [confidence], you can do some really good things. When you don’t, you can’t do much. He has it right now, but he can play even better. Yet, he’s given us what we need.”
In 103 seasons of St. Bonaventure basketball, the Bonnies have played only Canisius and Niagara more often than Duquesne.
Wednesday’s game will add another chapter to this historic rivalry and be an essential game in the conference standings.
Dayton, St. Louis, and VCU have a conference record of 4-1. Those three teams are the clear-cut top three in the conference.
The fourth seed, however, is up for grabs.
With Bona and Duquesne both having a 3-2 record, which has them tied for fourth, Wednesday’s game will separate these two schools, with one getting the inside track to that fourth spot.
The Bonnies have had great success against Duquesne over the past six seasons. They have also played well at home, as they are just one of five Atlantic 10 teams that have recorded only one home loss.
I see these trends continuing on Wednesday. The Dukes may be the better team on paper, but nobody on this Duquesne roster has experience playing in front of the Wolf Pack at the Reilly Center.
Give me the Bonnies in a nail-biter as the students begin their spring semester on a happy note.
St. Bonaventure 74, Duquesne 72
Jack Milko is a current graduate student at St. Bonaventure University. He will graduate with an M.A. in Sports Journalism in May 2023. He also covers the Bonnies for @A10Talk. Follow him on Twitter @Jack_Milko.
Featured image courtesy of Dan Nelligan, St. Bonaventure ’20.