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Back from L.A., Kahlil Dukes finds a home at Niagara

Niagara Purple Eagles guard Kahlil Dukes got caught on the spinning coaching carousel at the start of his college basketball career.

The coach who recruited the former Connecticut high school scoring sensation to the University of Southern California was fired before Dukes even stepped onto the Los Angeles campus.

After seeing limited time in two seasons under USC’s Andy Enfield, Dukes decided to transfer. Would it have been different if USC hadn’t fired Kevin O’Neill, the coach who recruited Dukes? Who knows? But Dukes knew he needed a chance to show his ability.

“Because I never got to play for the head coach who recruited me, that was my biggest thing this time around,” Dukes said. “I wanted to do it differently. A lot of schools were calling me, but it wasn’t the head coach. My whole pitch to them was I want to talk to your head coach. I want to develop a relationship with him. I know how important that is.”

“When Niagara assistant coach Mark Rybczyk called,” Dukes said, “I told him, ‘I need to hear everything you’re saying from your head coach.’ He said, ‘He’s right here.’ He put him on. That gave me a good feeling.”

Dukes has been a bright spot for Niagara this season. The 6-foot-1 junior guard is averaging 16.5 points a game, second best on the team and 10th best in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.

Dukes’ scoring will be key to Niagara’s chances Monday night when the Purple Eagles play host to Canisius College at 7 p.m. at the Gallagher Center (Radio 1230, 1440; Time Warner Sports).

Niagara (6-14, 3-6) is coming off an upset of second-place St. Peter’s on Saturday. Canisius (12-8, 5-4) sits in a tight bunch of MAAC teams a game out of second place.

If Niagara is going to pull an upset, it better be able to score. Canisius ranks first in the MAAC in scoring, averaging 81.3 ppg. Offense is one aspect of the Purple Eagles’ game that has improved this season.

Dukes scored 2,228 points in his high school career and has added much-needed shooting ability to a Purple Eagles team that ranked 347th in the nation last year (fourth last) in three-point percentage.

Dukes is second in the MAAC in three-point percentage (.459), first in free-throw percentage (.930, fourth in three-pointers per game (2.4) and seventh in assists (3.6).

“That’s all glory to God,” Dukes said. “I put the work in and hope for the best.”

“He likes the ball in his hands because he can shoot and score,” said Niagara coach Chris Casey. “When he initially called us, I told him exactly what I thought. I didn’t know Kahlil personally in high school but I knew of him. His AAU coach, J.R. Hargreaves, played for us at Central Connecticut when I was an assistant there. I had seen him play.”

“I told him, ‘You’re a terrific player. You’ve got a chance to come here and contribute right away. You’ve got to earn it.’” Casey said. “To his credit, he’s worked at it and gotten better since he got here. He’s done everything he said he was going to do.”

Casey shifted Dukes from shooting guard to point guard early in the season to get a more stable veteran running the offense.

“I feel like I’m adjusting well but it’s been tough,” Dukes said. “I’ve had games where I’ve turned the ball over a lot. I have games where I’m trying to do too much, trying to make a play that’s not there. So I’ve got to keep remembering this is my first time being a full-time college point guard. Don’t force it. Stay poised.”

“His assist-to-turnover ratio has been good,” Casey said. “He’s worked on making better decisions with the ball. We continue to work on finishing at the basket with him, which he’s getting better at, and getting to the free throw line more, because he’s such a good free-throw shooter.”

Dukes admits leaving the sunshine of Los Angeles was not easy.

“I miss it every day,” he said. “But it was about me being in the best situation from a basketball standpoint, because I want to play. Do I want to be at a school in L.A., great weather and a big school? Or do I want to have an opportunity to play? I figured I could get an education wherever I went. I wanted to play basketball.”

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