Duquesne University’s basketball team took the court Friday night without hearing the two words that have dominated any discussion about the Dukes for 13 months.
Since five Duquesne players were shot following a Sept. 17, 2006, on-campus social event, no practice, no game, no team meeting, no offseason workout was held without the shootings playing some sort of role.
Always, one player or another was dealing with an issue related to the shootings: a still-healing injury, a lineup spot vacated, a practice missed, a lengthy rehabilitation session required, a season delayed or ruined.
But these Dukes will begin the season Nov. 9 against Howard with a full roster, not the depleted and upperclassmen-thin one of a year ago, as the shootings become an increasingly distant memory.
“There was never a day last year when we could think only about basketball,” coach Ron Everhart said Friday. “When something like this happens, you’re always going to have those lingering effects until, somewhere down the road, you can return to a sense of normalcy. For the most part, we’re real fortunate we have returned to that. That’s a real positive.”
Three of the five players shot are expected to start: 6-foot-10 inside player Shawn James, 6-1 guard Kojo Mensah and 6-4 guard Aaron Jackson. A fourth, 6-8 forward Sam Ashaolu, is back in school far earlier than initially projected despite having bullet fragments in his head. He expects to play next season.
The addition of James, who starred at Northeastern before transferring, and Mensah, who averaged 16.6 points two seasons at ago Siena, add some of the talent, experience, depth and on-court presence the Dukes often lacked while going 10-19 with a freshman-driven cast last season.
Then, almost any record would have been acceptable given the fact that the Dukes were coming off a 3-24 season before the shootings. This season, much more is expected from what looks to be the Dukes’ best team since they were 17-13 in 1993-94, their last winning season.
“We have more players, better depth and I am excited about our team,” Everhart said. “We’ve gone from having one of the most inexperienced teams in the country to having, legitimately, an experienced team. That’s one of the reasons for my optimism.”
During preseason practice, Everhart will emphasize improving at the defensive end and getting more consistent scoring from the perimeter.
Last year’s leading scorer, Robert Mitchell the Atlantic 10 freshman of the year and swingman Scott Grote transferred after last season, taking away two of the Dukes’ top outside threats.
“It’s a different sort of chemistry now,” Everhart said.
The only shooting victim not on the team is 6-8 forward Stuard Baldonado, who was involved in several offseason court cases involving alleged domestic violence and marijuana possession and is suspended from school.
Three freshmen, including 6-7 forward Damian Saunders, are expected to make a contribution immediately. Saunders initially signed with Marquette, only to enroll at Duquesne after Marquette declined to admit him due to an academic issue.
The players who were shot are expected to testify later this month in the court cases involving four people charged with the crimes. But their testimony is expected to have concluded by the time the season starts, eliminating a major distraction.
“The one thing that overwhelms you is this is really a unique opportunity, to have these guys out there because it could have been so much worse,” Everhart said.
The Dukes got a head start on the season when they played, and won, four games in the Toronto area over the Labor Day weekend.
“The team has embodied that as our approach every day: We’re just blessed to be here,” Everhart said. “It’s fun to coach these kids because they’re pretty special.”
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