The Philadelphia 76ers trailed the New York Knicks by one point on Jan. 12 with just under six seconds remaining. A little-known Sixers backup point guard got the ball and hit a fade-away baseline jumper over future Hall of Famer Carmelo Anthony at the buzzer. Downtrodden Philly fans erupted as their team won its 11th game of the season, surpassing last season’s measly total number of wins. The Twitterverse reacted by asking, “Who is that guy that just bested Melo to win the game?” If you’re a Duquesne basketball fan, you already know who T.J. McConnell is.
McConnell, a Chartiers Valley grad, is in the big time. After playing at Duquesne and Arizona, McConnell made the NBA as an undrafted free agent. An injury to starting Sixers point guard Sergio Rodriguez elevated T.J. to starter, and he is running with it. In addition to the aforementioned buzzer-beater, McConnell had 17 assists in the game just prior to that one. Those 17 assists were the most by a Philadelphia baller in nine years. Under the banners of NBA legends including Wilt Chamberlain, Julius Erving, Charles Barkley and Allen Iverson, T.J. McConnell has a new home.
And that is precisely why you should get up and go see a Duquesne Dukes basketball game. It’s an oft-overlooked program within the city, but it just may give you the best value for your dollar. Freshmen Isiaha Mike and Mike Lewis II are enough reason to buy a ticket. It’s a high level of basketball that features Atlantic 10 opponents like Virginia Commonwealth, Dayton, George Mason and Steph Curry’s alma mater, Davidson.
The Dukes lost more than 70 percent of their scoring players from last year’s team. Coach Jim Ferry is replacing that offense with a roster of transfers, freshmen and walk-ons; it’s a veritable group of gypsies, tramps and thieves of the court. In fact, those freshmen both started the season-opener, marking the first time in 10 seasons Duquesne had freshmen in opening-day starter roles. The team has three walk-ons, another two freshmen and four transfers who either start or play backup roles.
Rene Castro, a Boston native, came over from Butler (the college in Indiana, not the nearby town that still has pay phones). Starter Emile Blackman posted close to 1,000 points at Niagara before coming to Duquesne. Kale Abrahamsson played at Drake, while another starter, Tarin Smith, left the Nebraska Cornhuskers to play for coach Ferry.
Mike came to the Dukes via Scarborough, in Ontario. As a high schooler, he was the third-ranked player in all of Canada. Scarborough also gave the world John Candy, Jim Carrey and The Weekend. Mike may be added to that notable list in a few years because the kid is good.
The trouble with being a diehard Duquesne hoops fan — and you’ll see them all through the Palumbo Center — is if a player is really good, another big program might take him away. That’s what happened with McConnell and Arizona. Now, Isiaha Mike could be on their radar. He’s a 6’8” forward who can electrify a crowd with a power dunk and be aggressive on the boards, and he has a soft touch on his passes. His touch pass to center Darius Lewis helped Duquesne seal a victory recently over the stupidly named St. Louis Billikens. I hate them so much.
Mike Lewis II has been A10 rookie of the week three times this season and needs to be it two more times to tie the school record. Lewis leads the Dukes in scoring average and three-pointers. He dropped 15 against Pitt in the Dukes’ victorious City Game. He is vying to be just the fourth freshman in team history to lead the Dukes in scoring. Sophomore Nakye Sanders cleans the boards for Ferry and pulled down 10 of them in a win over Penn State last year.
Besides the talent, Duquesne basketball games are just fun. They seem untarnished — a game without endless corporate logos and mind-numbing signs and lights that tell you when you should cheer. Duquesne hosts Rhode Island, on Jan. 21; St. Bonaventure, on Feb. 1; and UMass, on Feb. 15. They then close out the year with home games against George Washington, Fordham and St. Joseph’s. Who knows — you might even see a future NBA player.