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Kovacevic: Will Duquesne ever Dance again'

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By Dejan Kovacevic
Friday, March 9, 2012

Within a wicked span of seven hours and a New York minute Wednesday, nearly all of our region's Division I basketball teams were wiped out of their conference tournaments: West Virginia and Pitt were felled at the Garden, then Robert Morris over in Brooklyn.

But yeah, Duquesne still beat everyone out the door, bowing the previous night to UMass in the Atlantic 10 for its third consecutive one-and-done tournament.

Even in a season where basketball's been an afterthought in these parts, even with the most powerful program down for the first time in a decade, even with Duquesne hosting the NCAA Tournament at Consol Energy Center next week, the Dukes still out-afterthought all comers.

They lost to Pitt in the City Game for the 30th time in 33 meetings, shortly before the Panthers couldn't handle DePaul or Wagner.

They lost to Robert Morris, then watched the Colonials cement their status as No. 2 in the city by again reaching the NEC final.

They lost five of their final six games, this after being 14-9 through Feb. 4 and fresh off a romp over Richmond that drew the first sellout at Palumbo Center — 4,481 — since 2009.

And ultimately, of course, they lost out on what sixth-year coach Ron Everhart still calls the program's top priority: Get into the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1977.

He's serious. They're still eligible.

"That's absolutely our goal," Everhart said the other day at Palumbo. "That's the whole thing, the Holy Grail for all of us in college basketball. That's what we're shooting for here, too, and the tough thing is that we've been so darned close."

He mentioned 2009, when the Dukes reached the A-10 final and the NIT.

"We were right there. And we were there for a while this year before some injuries. But there's no question we can be that program, that VCU, that school that gets in and does damage. And I'd like to think it's not too far off in the future."

Before continuing, a disclaimer: I once attended Duquesne, back when the school still offered journalism majors (as well as modern wheel-carving). But I'd be lying if I said I was any more invested in the Dukes than ... well, anyone with a working pulse.

What could change that for our city?

What could make Duquesne basketball, even if never again at the level of the Norm Nixon teams of the 1970s, at least relevant enough to be fun?

Some stuff is in place.

The recently upgraded Palumbo remains a gym, not an arena, one of the purest-feeling basketball venues in the country. Tickets average about $15, a bargain for the quality of Atlantic 10 ball, so a wholly different base than Pitt's could be drawn. In games at Consol, they've drawn 8,000 for Penn State, 11,000 for Xavier. And the school can and does sell its Catholic mission to student-athletes.

All are vital.

The most important ingredient, the coach, is right, too: Everhart took over maybe the NCAA's worst program and overcame the shooting tragedy of 2006 to raise -— and keep — the Dukes' heads above water, now set for a fifth consecutive winning season after just two in the previous 26. He has represented himself and the school with impeccable class. There aren't many people in local sports you pull for harder.

Bottom line, though, is that he's got to get players.

Or maybe just one big one.

The Dukes have had recruiting successes among smaller types, including current sophomore point guard T.J. McConnell, among the NCAA's best in 3-point shooting, assists and steals. More like him, Tom Pipkins and Mike James are needed.

But I'm talking about the big man, the one where you look out onto the court and feel like you're watching big-time hoops. That hasn't been seen on the Bluff since 6-foot-10 Derrick Alston was slamming and swatting his way to the NBA.

"We'd love to have an Alston," Everhart said. "Those guys usually are the ones who stay home. On some level, our success will depend on keeping a guy like that."

Much the way Pitt did with Schenley's DeJuan Blair, a player Everhart also courted intensely.

"I know this," Everhart continued, lapsing into a little recruiting. "If I was a big kid who could play, I'd want to play with McConnell. T.J.'s got a ton of assists, and we don't have a guy right now who we can throw it into and know it's going to be a basket. Just imagine if we did."

The imagining isn't easy.

"I know, believe me. It's been frustrating. It's been difficult. But it can definitely happen here. We're going to have to have more success, and yeah, we're going to have to get a little lucky."



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