PITTSBURGH – Sean Johnson watched the steady stream of teammates bolt the Duquesne basketball program last spring following a power struggle with former coach Ron Everhart and made a promise to himself to not abandon the program.
“Guys left. I stayed,” the senior guard said. “I didn’t want to leave. I didn’t want to go through all that.”
Besides, Johnson felt there was still too much work to be done, beating Pittsburgh near the top of the list.
Johnson will get his final crack at the Panthers today in the 81st edition of the City Game as the Dukes try to end an 11-year losing streak to their crosstown rivals.
“I really want to go out and win,” Johnson said. “Everybody is going to have to be on point. I just can’t win it by myself.”
Probably not a good idea considering Johnson would basically be going one-on-10. The Panthers (7-1) have cruised through the first month of the season behind a deep bench and the precocious play of freshman point guard James Robinson, who is flourishing despite logging a team-high 30 minutes a game.
“We thought he’d be good (but) he’s probably better than what we thought,” Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said.
A welcome development for a program that lost its way last winter when guard Tray Woodall went down with an abdominal injury in an 80-69 victory over the Dukes. Woodall missed nine of the next 10 games and Pitt stumbled its way out of the NCAA tournament picture for the first time in over a decade.
“It’s rare that (a point guard goes down), and when it does, you’ve got to be in position and we weren’t in position and I knew before going into the season,” Dixon said. “This year, we’ve got James, who is a seasoned veteran as a freshman. He’s got a great understanding of the game.”
Even if Robinson, who is from the Washington, D.C., suburbs, is still gaining an understanding for what the annual matchup with the Dukes means to his new city.
“We’re going to prepare as if we were playing a team that has won many times against us,” Robinson said.
Something the Dukes haven’t done since well before Robinson and any of his teammates were born.
Still, the game remains a vital part of the nonconference schedule for both schools, a fact that will not change even with Pitt going to the ACC next year and Duquesne rebuilding under new coach Jim Ferry.
“This really isn’t about our RPI, it really isn’t about scheduling,” Ferry said. “It’s us against Pitt.”
A meeting that has been a rivalry in name only since 1981. Still, there remains a sense of electricity when the programs face each other. The game drew nearly 16,000 fans to Consol Energy Center last winter and it remains a measuring stick of sorts for both schools.
“Sometimes people ask us, because we’ve won a few of the games lately, why do you continue?”’ Dixon said. “It’s because it’s the right thing to do. You’re never bigger than an institution or a tradition and I think we understand that and hopefully we can continue to do that.”
Particularly if the Panthers can continue to win. There was a time when things were the other way around, an era Ferry believes can return even though the process might take awhile.
The Dukes were picked to finish last in the Atlantic 10 but have won four out of their last five as Ferry’s players start to get comfortable with his uptempo system. Ferry led LIU-Brooklyn to back-to-back Northeast Conference titles and NCAA tournament appearances in 2010 and 2011 but now finds himself tasked with reshaping a program that met with moderate success under Everhart before things imploded last spring.
Johnson and fellow senior Andre Marhold stuck around amid the chaos and now find themselves as the elder statesmen on a team that features seven freshmen or sophomores in the rotation. It’s not exactly the way Johnson envisioned wrapping up his career. Then again, things could be worse. He believes things are headed in the right direction under Ferry, even if the actual process won’t be completed until well after Johnson is gone.
“We’ve become more of a team,” Johnson said. “Even the young guys are getting confidence in themselves.”
Something that’s bound to spike if the Dukes can beat the Panthers for only the second time this millennium. It’s not the end goal of Ferry’s vision, but it would certainly be a start.
“We’ve got to grind this out and make this a better rivalry,” Ferry said. “We have to do our part. We want to play this game and we want to win this game.”