First place in Atlantic 10 at stake today for Duquesne
As hype built for Duquesne's game against Xavier in today's Chuck Cooper Classic at sold-out Consol Energy Center, both teams took a this-is-what-we-play-for attitude.
Much is at stake — namely first place in the Atlantic 10, in which Duquesne (16-6) and Xavier (17-6) are tied at 8-1. Both teams also are contenders for an NCAA Tournament berth. That's nothing new for Xavier, but once-laughable Duquesne hasn't been in tournament in 34 years.
Consider how far the Dukes have come since coach Ron Everhart arrived on The Bluff in 2006: The team had just finished 3-24, the worst season in program history, and shortly after Everhart's hiring, five players were injured in an on-campus shooting.
"It's been a great feeling being able to turn things around here," said senior forward Damian Saunders, who arrived a year after the shooting. "This year has been incredible so far."
"We've always had (the NCAA Tournament) in mind, to get guys and win a championship," Everhart said. "I'm excited about the guys we have now. We've got 12 kids who are really good teammates, as good as I've ever had."
Today could be the biggest regular-season game for Duquesne in 40 years. Xavier, picked to finished second in the preseason, has regrouped after being slowed by injuries and suspensions. Duquesne, picked eighth in the preseason among the A-10's 14 teams, hopes to relocate a winning formula that included its best league start and an 11-game winning streak.
"The ultimate goal for every program should be to get to the NCAA Tournament," athletic director Greg Amodio said. "The only way you can compete for a national championship is to get to the NCAA Tournament."
The NCAA Tournament was but a fantasy for Duquesne before Everhart, who brought optimism and a history of turning around the basketball fortunes of McNeese State and Northeastern.
The optimism ended in September 2006. Five players — Stuard Baldonado, Sam Ashaolu, Shawn James, Kojo Mensah and Aaron Jackson — were shot on campus after attending a dance. The players survived, but the incident took a toll on the players, school and program.
Everhart entered his first season with a patchwork roster yet coached the team to a 10-win season. Slowly, the Dukes improved, and Everhart — true to his billing — attracted solid recruits.
Duquesne won 17 games in 2007-08, then 21 the following year. That 2008-09 team advanced to the A-10 championship game, where it lost to Temple, and earned a National Invitation Tournament appearance — the program's first postseason bid since the 1993-94 team played in the NIT.
With the graduation of first-team all-conference guard Aaron Jackson, last year's team regressed, finishing 16-16. Team chemistry was lacking. Bill Clark, this year's unquestioned leader, endured several suspensions. Duquesne still made the postseason, earning a bid to the College Basketball Invitational and a trip to play Princeton. But the Dukes' lack of cohesiveness was evident in a 65-51 loss.
After the season, three players transferred, including starting guard Melquan Bolding. But with a freshman backcourt that includes T.J. McConnell, the WPIAL's all-time leader in 3-point shots, the Dukes already have matched their win total from a year ago.
Optimism has returned. The on-campus shooting is a distant memory.
"It's been a great experience," said Saunders, who signed with Marquette but, after a scholarship snafu, was drawn to Duquesne by Everhart in 2007. He remains one of Everhart's best recruits. "If I hadn't come here, I'd probably still be at home, with everything that happened with me and Marquette. I'd probably still be sitting on the couch watching college basketball instead of playing it. I thank Coach Everhart for the opportunity he gave me. We've been rolling with it ever since."
Because of the presence of players such as Saunders and Clark, who put behind him a tumultuous junior year to become Duquesne's leading scorer this season, the Dukes are on pace for another 20-win season under Everhart.
"It has been a long journey," said the 6-foot-7 Saunders, Duquesne's career leader in blocked shots and steals. "We had some great leaders before us. Now, it's me and Bill taking charge. You pick up a little bit of experience as you go. Just being the leaders that we are, we want to make sure that the group of guys we leave behind will follow."
For the first time in years, national media are taking note of Duquesne: The Dukes have received votes in The Associated Press Top 25.
"Five years ago, when Ron got here, we had not had much success for the long term," Amodio said. "The key for us was to get back to being relevant in college basketball."
That has begun, and national publications are in step with Duquesne's progress. "If you haven't watched the Dukes play yet, you gotta check 'em out," Seth Davis of SI.com wrote this week. "Their coach, Ron Everhart, loves up-tempo, frenetic basketball, and he finally has the personnel to pull it off."
Still, the Dukes might need to win the A-10 Tournament to earn an NCAA Tournament bid. ESPN basketball analyst Joe Lunardi does not count Duquesne among the 68-team field in his latest predictions, nor does he have the Dukes as one of the first eight teams left out.
Duquesne seniors Saunders, Clark and David Theis have enjoyed four seasons of at least .500 basketball. Before their arrival, Duquesne suffered through 11 consecutive losing seasons.
"It's better now than where we were, but is it ultimately where we want to be?" Amodio said. "No."
What's often overlooked when discussing Duquesne is the school's rich basketball history. The Dukes spent two weeks as the top-ranked team in 1954 and a year later won the NIT, then the equivalent of a modern-day NCAA Tournament title. That's Amodio's vision.
He looked around Palumbo Center, the school's refurbished, on-campus arena, which has undergone a series of makeovers in recent years.
"You've got to be able to provide the assets to recruit better student-athletes," he said. "Better student-athletes give you a chance to win more ballgames. More basketball wins help you sell more tickets, and that money can be put back in the program."
On the heels of a $1.8 million renovation of Palumbo Center's main bowl last fall, the school announced plans in December for the Janice and James Schaming Athletic Center, which will include the renovation of the men's and women's basketball and volleyball locker rooms as well as a redesign of the arena's lower corridor.
"It's all about growth and long-term sustainability of the program," Amodio said. "We just don't want to be a flash in the pan for one year. We want to be in the conversation every year."
Xavier at Duquesne
2 p.m. today, Consol Energy Center
Records: Xavier 17-6, 8-1 Atlantic 10; Duquesne 16-6, 8-1
Radio: WPBG-FM (104.7)
Favorite: Duquesne by 4 1/2
Series: Xavier leads, 26-17
Outlook: Xavier has been in conference title contention for what seems like forever. Save for its unexpected run at an A-10 Tournament crown two years ago, Duquesne hasn't been a household name for some time.
Duquesne must contend with Xavier's superior size. Forwards Kenny Frease (7-0) and Jamel McLean (6-8) are taller than every player in Duquesne's starting lineup.
The backcourts will be buzzing. Duquesne's sensational freshman tandem of T.J. McConnell, the A-10 leader in steals (2.9 average), and Mike Talley, with relief help from junior Eric Evans and sophomore Sean Johnson, will look to neutralize high-scoring Xavier junior Tu Holloway, the Musketeers' leading scorer, and sophomore Mark Lyons.
Duquesne's senior forwards Bill Clark and Damian Saunders are moving up the school's career scoring list. Clark battled foul trouble but still scored 15 points in a 64-62 loss at St. Bonaventure on Feb. 5 — the Dukes' most recent game — giving him a career total of 1,492 and pushing him past Kevin Price (1995-98) for 10th on the all-time list. Saunders is at No. 16 with 1,391, passing B.B. Flenory (1977-80), after scoring 16 against the Bonnies.
• Coach: Chris Mack, second season (43-15)
F Jamel McLean, 6-8 Sr.: 11.5 points per game
F Dante Jackson, 6-5 Sr.: 7.7 ppg
C Kenny Frease, 7-0 Jr.: 11.8 ppg
G Mark Lyons, 6-1 So.: 13.8 ppg
G Tu Holloway, 6-0 Jr.: 20.7 ppg
• Coach: Ron Everhart, fifth season (80-67)
F Bill Clark, 6-5 Sr.: 17.5 ppg
F Damian Saunders, 6-7 Sr.: 12.9 ppg
F B.J. Monteiro, 6-5 Jr.: 12.0 ppg
G T.J. McConnell, 6-0 Fr.: 11.2 ppg
G Mike Talley, 5-10 Fr.: 7.5 ppgAdditional Information:
Dukes through the years
Duquesne was a national power long before the term 'March Madness' existed. A look at program highlights (and lowlights):
• 1913 • Duquesne dressed its first basketball team.
• 1940 • Duquesne joined Colorado as the first two teams to be invited to the National Invitation Tournament and NCAA championship. The Dukes finished as NIT runner-up and reached the NCAA Final Four, losing to eventual champion Indiana in the semifinals.
• 1950 • The Boston Celtics made Duquesne's Chuck Cooper the first black player drafted by an NBA team.
• 1952 • The first televised game in Pittsburgh basketball history featured Duquesne and St. Bonaventure at Duquesne Gardens.
• 1953-56 • Duquesne spends more weeks (66) in the Associated Press Top 10 than any other Atlantic 10 school. (Temple was second at 61.) The Dukes were ranked for 36 consecutive weeks over four years. Duquesne held the No. 1 spot in the poll for two weeks in 1954.
• 1955 • All-Americans Dick Ricketts and Sihugo Green led Duquesne to the 1955 NIT championship at Madison Square Garden, scoring the Dukes' first 44 points in a 70-58 victory over Dayton in the title game.
• 1955-56 • Duquesne is the only school to produce back-to-back No. 1 picks in the NBA Draft. Ricketts went to the Milwaukee Bucks in the 1955, and Green was selected by the Rochester Royals in 1956.
• 1977 • Duquesne's most recent appearance in the NCAA Tournament came during former Dukes star Norm Nixon's final season. While Duquesne only managed a .500 record at 15-15, it survived three Eastern College Basketball League tournament games to advance to the NCAA East Regional, where Virginia Military Institute eliminated the Dukes, 73-66.
• 1982-2009 • Duquesne endured a 28-year stretch without a postseason bid past the A-10 tournament. During that time, the Dukes lost at least 20 games in a season eight times, including a school-worst 3-24 record in 2005-06.
• 2006 • Five players suffered gunshot wounds during an incident following an on-campus dance. All recovered and have moved on from the university. One player, Sam Ashalou, has not played since.
• 2009 • Duquesne unexpectedly surged to the Atlantic 10 championship game, losing to Temple, 69-64, and settling for an NIT bid, its first postseason trip since the 1993-94 NIT. Duquesne finished 21-13 after losing to Virginia Tech, 116-108 in double overtime, in a first-round game despite a 46-point performance by senior Aaron Jackson in his final college game.