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.