Kovacevic: Don't count out Duquesne, Ferry
Tra'Vaughn White carefully stroked a 3-pointer from the corner that prompted about half of the 11,146 fans at Consol Energy Center to hoot and high-five and probably throw in a few Hail Marys. The scene in that moment Saturday afternoon, in the opening minute of the second half of the 82nd City Game between Pitt and Duquesne, was a ton of fun.
Dukes 44, Panthers 41!
Honest to Norm Nixon, that's what the big board showed.
I went to journalism school at Duquesne in another lifetime, so I'll concede that I just violated one of the cardinal rules of sports writing: The first score given in any game story should be the final, never a partial. Apologies to all offended professors, current and former.
But man … did I mention I went to Duquesne?
Ask any of the hardy few who still pay attention to the university's men's basketball program after three fantastically forlorn decades, and a positive partial score will do just fine, thanks.
Especially when it's richly earned, as this one was.
“We had a good tempo and played really hard, made some good things happen,” Jim Ferry, the Dukes' coach, would say later. “After that, I think we got worn down.”
Oh yeah, that.
Panthers 84, Dukes 67.
Ferry's kids didn't stand a chance and not just because Jamie Dixon has Pitt soaring at 7-0. The Dukes were outsized, outshot, outpassed, outrebounded, out-everythinged for the 13th year in a row, the 32nd out of the past 35. It was interesting for a half and change, but all that Pitt depth came through as anyone reasonable would have expected.
Which left me wondering: What's a reasonable goal for Duquesne?
Not this Duquesne team. Any Duquesne team.
Don't count me among those who believe the program is done forever. There are 96 years of history there, not least of which was the 1955 national championship, and there's still enough of a will and way to revive some semblance of it.
Let's start with a little myth-busting:
• Duquesne's administration doesn't care about basketball.
Actually I believe that. There has been additional funding, most of it into upgrading the multipurpose Palumbo Center, but the university has taken the cheap route for so long that it's naive not to doubt. Even the news last week that the program had raised more than $1 million for what's being called the Fund for Basketball Excellence rang hollow: All of the money came from outside donors.
What was it called before, the Fund for Basketball Existence?
At any rate, the money is there, as Ferry assured me.
“We absolutely have what we need to do this right,” Ferry said. “I don't know what happened before me. I know that the school and the athletics department have been outstanding with me.”
• Few will ever care about Duquesne again.
I don't buy it. If Pittsburgh proved anything in 2013, it's that a latent fan base will come out in a large way once a perpetual loser turns it around. And similar to the Pirates, the Dukes have an older generation that remembers the good days and a younger generation — more students than ever, actually — who would love to see it.
The novelty factor alone, should the Dukes ever compete in the still-decent-if-diminished Atlantic 10, would generate enough media attention and ticket sales for Palumbo's 4,406 seats.
• Duquesne can't compete with Pitt for local talent.
They probably won't. For every T.J. McConnell who picks Duquesne, there will be a dozen of Ryan Luther, the 6-foot-8 guard out of Hampton who went with Dixon after Ferry had been showing up at his games for months.
But recruiting isn't what it used to be. The Dukes' best player, Ovie Soko, is from London. The rest of the starting five were from Maryland, Missouri, Georgia and Ohio. Ferry and his staff are deeply channeled into the basketball community far and wide.
“I'm very confident we will find players,” Ferry said. “But we need more than one class to do it.”
• Palumbo is too small.
Immaterial. Not many know this, but the Penguins dedicated permanent locker rooms to Pitt and Duquesne when building Consol. Ferry uses the Dukes' room and the arena as part of his tour for recruits, telling them that's where the really big A-10 games will go.
Bear in mind, Duquesne's campus is right across Fifth Avenue. The Penguins, I can tell you, would love to have more big-time college basketball in the place. It's a perfect marriage in waiting.
• You'll never get a good coach to come — and stay — at Duquesne.
In 2002, Ferry took over a terrible Long Island-Brooklyn program and left with 52 wins in this final two seasons, each capped by an NCAA Tournament berth.
Last one of those at Duquesne: 1977.
Ferry is a winner. You can see it in how he carries himself. You can hear it in his criticisms of his team. Most important, you can watch how he already has generated a marked improvement.
Listen to Pitt guard Cam Wright after the City Game: “They're bigger, faster, stronger, more talented.”
And Dixon: “No question they've gotten better. They played us hard. It'll be interesting to see how they grow together.”
Sure will. Derrick Colter, the top guard, is a sophomore. Desmond Ridenour, another guard and maybe the most promising talent, is a freshman.
“I consider our future here to be very bright, and by that I don't mean the distant future,” Ferry said. “I didn't come here to lose. We want to get this done and soon.”
Consider it a partial score.