Aaron Jackson went home to Hartford, Conn., and had a Merry Christmas.
"It'll be a lot different Christmas than two years ago," the Duquesne junior guard said with a smile after the Dukes beat Saint Francis, Pa., 99-80 in their final game before taking a holiday break. Their respite ends tonight when they host Robert Morris.
Duquesne raised its record to 7-3, continuing their dramatic turnaround under second-year coach Ron Everhart. With two games left, against Robert Morris and South Carolina-Upstate, before Atlantic 10 Conference play begins, the Dukes have assured themselves on a winning non-conference record for the first time since 1995-96.
That is a far cry from two seasons ago when Duquesne went 3-24 under Danny Nee. It is also improvement over last season when Everhart overcame the loss of five players in an on-campus shooting in September to lead the Dukes to a 10-19 record.
"We were 1-9 at Christmas when I was a freshman and it was tough to go home and talk about basketball," Jackson said. "All I could talk about was how we lost a few close games. Now, I can talk to my family and friends about how we're winning and building some momentum. It's a lot different now."
Duquesne has its deepest and most athletic team in years as evidenced by five players scoring in double figures on Saint Francis, though none logged more than 22 minutes in Everhart's two-platoon system in which he continually makes five-for-five lineup changes.
While the Dukes have just three players scoring in double figures, they have seven averaging at least eight points a game.
Junior forward Shawn James is leading the way with 14.1 points a game and junior guard Kojo Mensah is right behind at 13.9. Both were all-conference selections at other schools before transferring to Duquesne and sitting out last season, James at Northeastern in the Colonial and Mensah at Siena in the MAAC.
Senior center Kieron Achara, the other holdover from the Nee Era beside Jackson, is scoring 12.5 points a game. Achara is followed by freshman guard Bill Clark (9.8), Jackson (8.8), freshman forward Damian Saunders (8.4) and senior guard Gary Tucker (8.1).
The most intriguing player on the Dukes' roster is James, who led the nation in blocked shots two seasons ago with an average of 6.5 a game. He is averaging 5.0 this season while shooting 57.4 percent from the field.
With a developing inside game and enough range on his jumper that he can make an occasional three, James has been described as a "poor man's Kevin Garnett" by one NBA scout.
"He's still a little bit rusty from sitting out a year but he's very athletic, very active and very bouncy," Everhart said. "He's more than a shot blocker, though. He has nice shooting touch from the outside and he is a good passer. He should make a real impact for us."
Not only was James forced to sit out the games last season as a transfer, but his practice time was limited after he was shot in the foot outside a campus dance. James, though, never regretted following Everhart from Northeastern to Duquesne and going from Boston to Pittsburgh.
"I just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time," James said. "It's not like Duquesne is a dangerous campus or Pittsburgh is a crazy city. It could have happened anywhere. Unfortunately, people get shot in every city in this country.
"Coach Everhart is like a father to me and the people at Duquesne are like my family. The university was great throughout everything that happened with the shooting. I know I made the right decision to come here and now that I'm back out on the court playing I realize more than ever that Duquesne is the right place for me."
Even though Duquesne has had 13 straight losing seasons and has finished under. 500 in 20 of the last 21 winters, James believes a winning season is on the horizon and perhaps even more in a conference that seems balanced beyond Xavier, which is the heavy favorite.
"The sky is the limit," James said. "We have a very talented team. We haven't won much here in a long time and our goal is to change that this season."
Eddie Sutton Returns
It has been a long time since San Francisco's program has been relevant, but the Dons made a shocking move this week when they hired legendary coach Eddie Sutton while Jessie Evans takes a leave of absence that, by all accounts, is likely to be permanent.
San Francisco is off to a 4-8 start and visits Weber State on Friday night. Sutton, who retired after missing the final 10 games of the 2005-06 season at Oklahoma State because of a drunken driving arrest, has 798 career victories and is two away from joining Bob Knight, Dean Smith, Adolph Rupp and Jim Phelan as the fifth coach to notch 800 wins.
Sutton is familiar with only one player on the San Francisco roster, sophomore forward Dion Lowhorn, who played against Oklahoma State in the Big 12 with Texas Tech in 2005-06 before transferring.
"This is the toughest challenge I've ever had," Sutton told the San Francisco Chronicle. "It's going to take some effort to get this ballclub straightened out."
While Sutton's title is "interim coach," he said he would be open to taking the job on a full-time basis.
Lute Olson Update
Speaking of veteran coaches, a source with direct knowledge of the situation told Around The Rim that Lute Olson has likely coached his last game at Arizona.
Olson is taking a leave of absence this season after filing for divorce, and is being replaced by assistant coach Kevin O'Neill. The source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Olson is also facing undisclosed medical problems that will likely preclude him from coaching again.
Team to Watch
This week's Team to Watch is Stanford, which is No. 16 in the Pomeroy Ratings and riding a six-game winning streak. The Cardinal hosts Fresno State on Saturday before opening Pacific-10 Conference play next Thursday at home against UCLA.
Stanford has been bolstered by the return of seven-foot sophomore forward Brook Lopez, who has scored 39 points in the last two games after sitting out the first nine games of the season because of academic difficulties. Lopez's twin brother, 7-foot sophomore center Robin, is scoring 10.8 points a game.
Junior guard Anthony Goods is averaging 12.5 points and junior forward Lawrence Hills has a 10.2 scoring average.
Stanford should get a quick indication if is ready to contend for the Pac-10 title when it faces conference favorite UCLA, then gets a visit from highly regarded Southern California two days later.
Games of the Week
The top five games of the week from Dec. 28-Jan. 3 according to the Pomeroy Ratings (all times Eastern):
No. 4 Wisconsin at No. 14 Texas, Saturday, Dec., 29, 12 p.m., ESPN2
No. 7 UCLA at No. 16 Stanford, Thursday, Jan. 3, 10:30 p.m., FSN
No. 3 West Virginia at No. 22 Notre Dame, Jan. 3, 7 p.m., ESPN2
No. 24 Oklahoma vs. No. 3 West Virginia at Charleston, W. Va., Saturday, Dec. 29, 6 p.m., ESPN2
No. 11 Arizona at No. 18 Memphis, Saturday, Dec. 29, 10 p.m., ESPN2
John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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