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Duquesne's Saunders off to great start

Scan the college basketball landscape in Pittsburgh for the best player these days.

You might be surprised.

Is he at Pitt• Maybe. Is he at Duquesne• Probably.

It's hard to ignore Dukes forward Damian Saunders, whose six double-doubles in the season's first six games have turned a spotlight onto the 6-foot-7 junior from Waterbury, Conn.

"I don't think there's any question he's real special," Duquesne coach Ron Everhart said Monday, a day after Saunders logged 14 points, 16 rebounds and six blocks in a victory over Radford and 6-11, 270-pound Artisom Parakhouski. "There's nothing Damian can't do for us. He can rebound, shoot and pass, and he does it all with a very high motor.

"And, he takes a lot of pride in stopping people defensively."

Saunders came to Duquesne and the Atlantic 10 Conference as one of Everhart's best recruits in 2007 after originally signing with Marquette. But former Marquette coach Tom Crean didn't have a scholarship available when all-conference guard Dominic James opted to stay in school instead of leaving early for the NBA Draft.

Saunders and Duquesne have a date with Pitt on Wednesday night at Mellon Arena, where the annual City Game will serve as the final college hoops spectacle at the venue before it gives way to the new Consol Energy Center.

With Pitt in rebuilding mode following the departure of a trio of stars from last year's Elite Eight squad, including NBA draftees in forwards Sam Young and DeJuan Blair, Duquesne is hoping for its first victory in the series since 2000.

Saunders is a big reason why.

"He's going to be a pretty good challenge," Pitt center Gary McGhee said. "I think right now he is leading the nation in rebounding. He usually starts out on the wing and just runs in and gets a lot of tip-out rebounds."

Saunders, averaging 16.7 points and 15.5 rebounds, smiled when it was suggested that he's becoming Pittsburgh's marquee basketball player.

"I'm just a regular guy," he said. "I know I'm starting to get recognized by local people who watch Duquesne, but with the Steelers and Big Ben (Roethlisberger), the Penguins and Sidney (Crosby) and Pitt, it's really hard to be recognized in this town. This is a sports town, and you really have to have a standout year so somebody can really notice you."

So far, Saunders is getting noticed.

"It's going to be a challenge for me and (power forward Nasir Robinson) to keep him off the glass," said McGhee, the Panthers' 6-10, 250-pound man in the middle.

Everhart recalled a session over the summer when former Duquesne star Mike James spoke to the team, and he suggested it was a turning point in Saunders' current progress.

"Mike said, 'Hard work will beat talent that doesn't work hard seven days a week,'" Everhart said. "The problem Damian has had up until now is that his offseason work ethic probably hasn't been as good as it could have been. But Mike James was all about working hard, and Damian took that to heart. Now, he does the extra work."

Soon, we'll know if Saunders keeps his double-double streak alive. Soon, we may even find out more about his improved work ethic. And soon, maybe more folks will find out who Damian Saunders really is.

Saunders can't wait.

"This game means a lot to us," he said. "It's a rivalry game and it's being played at Mellon Arena, the last game there.

"It really means a lot."

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