PITTSBURGH (AP) Jim Ferry's painstakingly methodical rebuilding project at Duquesne finally appears to be gaining traction.
The Dukes (6-1) are off to their best start in eight years heading into Friday night's annual City Game against crosstown rival Pittsburgh. Ferry isn't much for proclamations, so forgive him if he demurs when pressed on whether the Panthers (4-1) offer a true 40-minute litmus test on just how far his program has come.
''I don't think we come into the season saying one of our goals (is to beat Pitt),'' Ferry said. ''Our goal is to get to the NCAA Tournament. Our goal is to win a (Atlantic 10) championship.''
Yet Ferry will allow that this is the best shot the Dukes have had at knocking off their decidedly higher profile neighbor during his four-year tenure.
''Now you can start to look at our program and say `I see what our plan is, I can see where we're trying to get to,''' Ferry said. ''We've stabilized it.''
Duquesne starts five upperclassmen and plays at a tempo it believes could play to its advantage as the school tries to end a 14-game losing streak to Pitt, a skid that has cooled off a once heated rivalry. The Dukes have topped 70 points in each of their first seven games and gone over 90 in four.
''We've got a lot of speed and quickness,'' senior guard Derrick Colter said. ''They're slower than us. We can get it in transition, get open 3s and open shots for us.''
Maybe, but playing Pitt is no longer the two-hour cage match it was five years ago. The Panthers have evolved under coach Jamie Dixon after making the transition from the rugged Big East to the considerably more frenetic ACC.
''I don't know why they say they're faster than us,'' forward Jamel Artis said.
And in a way, Artis has a point. Pitt has scored less than 84 points just once in its first five games, though its early season momentum took a hit in a 72-59 home loss to No. 11 Purdue on Tuesday night. In a way, it might have provided the Panthers with a needed wake-up call after barreling through overmatched opponents in the opening couple of weeks.
If Dixon was concerned about his team taking the Dukes lightly heading into a game Pitt lost once since the turn of the millennium, it evaporated after letting the Boilermakers pull away in the second half.
''We can't feel too overconfident about ourselves,'' Dixon said. ''We just lost our last game.''
While Duquesne doesn't present the kind of matchup problems Purdue exploited, the Dukes have been hardened by three sometimes trying seasons under Ferry. There were signs of life late last year. Duquesne went 6-6 over its final 12 games on the way to a 12-19 finish.
That surge toward respectability has carried over into the fall. For the first time since arriving at Duquesne in 2012, Ferry didn't have to reintroduce drills to acclimate the newcomers. The older players already knew what to expect and brought the freshmen along. On the surface it doesn't seem like much, but it meant the Dukes could start pressing forward immediately.
''I like my group,'' Ferry said. ''I'm really excited about this group and with the seniors and senior leadership they've given us.''
Leadership that is trying to toe the line between treating the Panthers like just another game while understanding that a win wouldn't be just another win.
''Right now we're playing really well and I think that starts on the defensive end,'' Mason said. ''Every game we won, we got stops. I think this is the most confidence we have going into a Pitt game for sure.''