Duquesne emerges into surprise A-10 contender

Ron Everhart was walking to the arena when he heard more than

the city traffic that zooms past Duquesne’s basketball

facility.

”Hey, Coach! I’m going to get my tickets to the Dayton game.

Good luck!”

The brief encounter startled Everhart.

Yes, that was a real fan, standing on line to buy a suddenly hot

ticket, because he really wanted to see the Dukes play.

”The neat part was someone was actually coming to our box

office to buy tickets to a game,” Everhart said. ”That whole

walk-up thing is starting to kick-in.”

All because the Dukes are starting to kick down the idea that

Duquesne is an also-ran in a crowded Pittsburgh sports market. Long

one of the worst programs in all of college basketball, Everhart

has the Dukes (16-6, 8-1 Atlantic 10) on a run to remember that

finds them playing Xavier (17-6, 8-1) on Sunday for first place in

the Atlantic 10.

Not Temple or Richmond or Dayton. But Duquesne.

And the Dukes will play for first just a Hail Mary’s throw from

campus at the new, state-of-the art Consol Energy Center, home of

the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins.

Big game, big arena, big crowd.

”We’re going to play our butts off,” freshman guard T.J.

McConnell said.

Four-plus years ago, this probably wouldn’t have seemed

imaginable. Everhart was thrust into the most horrific start to a

new coaching job: Five players shot after a dance and more time

spent in a hospital than on a basketball court.

The tragic night soon became the only reason fans knew about

Duquesne.

For a depressed program that has long played in the shadow of

Big East power and neighbor Pittsburgh, and has not even sniffed

the NCAA tournament, it was an accident that could have flattened

the team for good.

But Everhart, who was raised in nearby West Virginia and was a

fan of Duquesne’s glory days, refused to use the shooting as an

excuse for not moving forward with his rebuilding project. He’d

earned a reputation as a shrewd motivator and a sharp recruiter,

one who was able to turn around bad teams. He did it at McNeese

State and Northeastern – leading them both from losing records to

the NIT.

But Duquesne was going to be his toughest task. The school,

after all, was considered a coaching graveyard.

”In my mind, Duquesne was still that same school that I grew up

idolizing,” he said. ”This was a big-time college basketball

program that was producing NBA players. It was no joke here.”

They sank into a laughingstock, though, and suffered through

years of embarrassing losses.

Under Danny Nee, before Everhart took over, the Dukes went

42-102 from 2001-06. Under Darelle Porter, from 1998-2001, they

went 23-64.

In fact, the Dukes, who fielded their first team in 1913-14,

have only five NCAA tournament appearances and none since 1977. But

Everhart jolted the team to the brink of the tournament in 2009

with 21 wins and a berth in the A-10 championship game. He followed

that last year with a spot in the CBI.

And this year, led by McConnell, and seniors Bill Clark and

Damian Saunders, the Dukes started a school-best 8-0 in the A-10

and won 11 straight games by double-digits before losing 64-62 to

St. Bonaventure last Saturday.

That’s led them to a showdown with the Musketeers, a program

that has reached the Sweet 16 the last three years.

”Unfortunately, now, we’re a team with a target on our back,”

Everhart said. ”Now when people play Duquesne, they’re not playing

Duquesne anymore. They’re playing a team that’s 8-1 in the Atlantic

10. There’s a huge difference between where we’ve been and where we

want to go.”

One person intricately familiar with Xavier is Duquesne athletic

director Greg Amodio. He spent 10 years in various positions at

Xavier before moving to The Bluff in 2005.

He hired Everhart and led the idea of a $2 million renovation of

the Palumbo Center outer concourse in the spring of 2006. He raised

money for a facelift inside the gym, installing premium seating,

chair backs, and new video boards. Up ahead is a $1.3 million

project expected to start in April that will include the renovation

of the men’s and women’s basketball and volleyball locker rooms.

The team takes charter flights now to several road games.

Throw in the Dukes’ agreement to play marquee opponents like

Pittsburgh and West Virginia at Consol, and the program has molded

itself into an attractive one for recruits.

Heck, even the radio package was upgraded from a low-watt AM

station to the FM dial.

The bells and whistles help because Everhart said teams still

use the shooting against them in recruiting.

”It’s just a more fan-friendly, more recruiting-friendly

environment,” Amodio said.

Maybe one that will help lure top recruits to campus and make

the Dukes a regular contender for the NCAAs. Everhart has molded a

solid program out of lightly regarded talent already. But fans

would like to see what he could do with some A-listers.

And somewhere along the way, the boosters would like to see them

beat Pitt sometime soon, too.

The Panthers play in a beast of a conference, on national

television and are contenders for a national championship every

year under Jamie Dixon. They also wallop the Dukes every season in

The City Game – Pitt has beaten Duquesne 10 consecutive times,

while winning 29 of the last 32.

Take a look across the state, where Temple, an A-10 program,

regularly competes hard, and does defeat, Big East rival Villanova,

from time to time. The Dukes aren’t there yet, with regards to the

Panthers. In fact, Duquesne has a bit of an inferiority complex

when it comes to the rivalry.

”I think sometimes our fans feel that way,” Amodio said.

”They really want to see Duquesne beat Pitt. There’s almost a

local validity to that.”

For the players, though, they think little about the Panthers

unless they’re on the scouting report.

”I really don’t feel we’re shadowing them. We’ve got a

different style of basketball,” Clark said. ”We’re not even in

the same category as them.”

And they’ll play the biggest basketball game in the city – and

around the program in nearly four decades – this weekend. Not

Pitt.

And maybe they’ll play meaningful games in April, too, if they

hear their name called on NCAA tournament selection day.

”I haven’t even talked about it,” Everhart said. ”I think it

takes away from us keeping an edge, staying on the side of being an

underdog, having something to prove. If my guys, or any of us,

start hearing that or feel a degree of complacency and satisfaction

about what’s already happened, then we don’t have that hunger going

forward we need to hopefully get there.”

As sizzling a start as they’ve had, the Dukes will have to play

nearly flawless down the stretch and likely have to win the A-10

tourney in Atlantic City to reach the NCAA tournament.

But they can dream about the postseason later.

After Sunday, they’ll be thrilled just being called the best in

the A-10.