Look How Far Dukes Have Come ... And Guess How Much Further They Might Go

Feb. 8, 2011

Alan Robinson, who spent the past 28 years covering Pittsburgh sports for The Associated Press, will be contributing to GoDuquesne.com for the remainder of the basketball season. Look for his columns here every Monday and Thursday.

by Alan Robinson

The same-day losses by Duquesne's men's and women's basketball teams were disappointing to students, alumni and fans because they came just as both programs appeared ready to climb into the Top 25.

Think about that for a moment, and consider how unrealistic it would have been only a couple of years ago to consider that such a possibility was even remotely fathomable.

Duquesne on the verge of breaking into the Top 25? What is this, 1971? 1972?

The Dukes' men's team has sustained few losses as disappointing as the 64-62 loss at St. Bonaventure on Saturday not just in recent seasons, but in recent decades. Yet, only a few weeks ago, no one in college basketball was suggesting that the Dukes might possibly be 8-1 and tied for the Atlantic 10 Conference lead going into Sunday's game against co-leader Xavier (16-6, 8-1 entering Tuesday night's game at Georgia) at the CONSOL Energy Center.

That's what made the last-second loss to the Bonnies even more difficult for Duquesne fans to accept. In barely a month's time, they've gone from hoping their team would win to expecting it would win. There's a huge jump in faith involved in going from one mindset to the other, and it usually requires multiple seasons to accomplish. Damian Saunders and Bill Clark, B.J. Monteiro and T.J. McConnell, Mike Talley and Eric Evans and Sean Johnson and the rest of the Dukes managed to alter such perceptions in only a few weeks' time.



Think back to five years ago, and how the Dukes won all of three games in a single season. Would any of this have been imaginable then?

To Duquesne athletic director Greg Amodio, yes it was.

Amodio, previously an associate AD at Xavier, envisioned Duquesne as something as a sleeping giant that was merely waiting for the right combination of coaches and players, support staff and, yes, administration to become good again.

Consider this: During Amodio's first full year on the job, the combined record of the Dukes' men's and women's teams in 2005-06 was 16-41. For comparison's sake, city rival Pittsburgh was 47-19. A season later, even with new men's coach Ron Everhart jumping the win total from 3 to 10, the Dukes were 17-39. The Pitt men and women were 53-17.

By last season, the gap had closed. The Duquesne men and women were 36-28, although the men slipped from 21 victories in 2008-09 to 16 in 2009-10. Pitt's combined record was 41-24, partly because the women went from consecutive seasons with 24, 24 and 25 victories to a 16-15 record.

This year, one in which the Duquesne women beat Pitt for the second successive season, Duquesne's combined record is 35-10. Pitt's is 33-13, including the men's record of 22-2. While no one is claiming there is on-court parity between the two schools - the Big East Conference not only is a rung above the Atlantic 10, it might be a rung above that of every other conference - there is no longer the great disparity in Pittsburgh college basketball that existed only a few years ago.

Duquesne has not yet arrived, but the journey to get there might not last nearly as long as one could have imagined.

"We never compare ourselves against other programs in the city, but you can get a benchmark of where you are," Amodio said. "With that said, and much more so on the women's side, there's great high school talent in Pittsburgh on the women's side. Great players playing at the high school and AUU level. So if we continue to develop our own product locally, we have a chance to recruit some of those local players. You've seen some of those kids come to Duquesne and be very successful and those, frankly, are kids that weren't looking at Duquesne in the past. And they'll tell you that right off the bat."

Think that T.J. McConnell (Chartiers Valley) and Alex Gensler (Upper St. Clair) would have considered coming to Duquesne only a few seasons ago?

Under coach Ron Everhart, the Duquesne men went from 3-24 in 2005-06, the season before he arrived, to 21-13 in only three seasons. Under Suzie McConnell-Serio, the Duquesne women went from 7-20 in 2006-07, the season before she arrived, to 20-12 in only two seasons.

So how did it happen, and why there is reason to be optimistic the improvement will continue?

"You see where Ron is, where Suzie is, you're bringing in winners, you're bringing in people with a track record," Amodio said. "The next thing you've got to do is give them the resources to be successful. And we've been able to do that. We've been able to hire different people from a ticketing standpoint, from corporate sales to the athletic development, people that weren't there before. Those people are generating additional revenue, and those are revenues we can put back into the product. When you look at the pieces, that's really what's been the difference. There's been a commitment from the top, additional resources and being able to hire the right people - and all are critical. You see plenty of places that have beautiful facilities and they have dollars and you sit there and you go, `Why aren't they winning there?' They're not winning because they probably don't have the right person in the big chair."

Much of the paper-pushing and email clutter also has been cut. Rather than being forced to make suggestions that elevated from one level of the administration to another before reaching the attention of university President Charles J. Dougherty, Amodio reports directly to Dougherty.

"There had always been a perceived feeling that there really wasn't a commitment from the university toward athletics, and I think with Dr. Dougherty coming on and hiring me - and I report directly to him, which wasn't the situation in the past - we're now working together," Amodio said. "I'm engaged on the board level, they hear what's going on. They allowed us to go ahead and make the necessary changes in leadership, and the key is you've got to have the right people in place."

This season's records - the men are 16-6 and tied for first place in the A-10 under Everhart, while the women are 19-4 and are on the verge of their third consecutive 20-win season under McConnell-Serio - suggest the upswing hasn't leveled off.

While Everhart had previously turned around the programs at McNeese State and Northeastern, McConnell-Serio's prior coaching experience was at the high school and WNBA levels. Not that Amodio considered that to be a negative; McConnell-Serio's teams won three state championships at Oakland Catholic, and she was a WNBA coach of the year with the Minnesota Lynx. She also was a college star at Penn State and an Olympic gold medal winner.

" When we were looking at her, a few people said, `She hasn't coached at the college level before.' My point to them was, `Listen, a winner is a winner is a winner. She has been a winner all her life," Amodio said. "She has a winner's mentality, she understands the hard work and determination it takes to get to that level. It will be quick and easy for her to convey that to the kids in the program. The biggest point for her to make sure she surrounded herself initially with people who understand the college game a little bit and had recruited and coached. And she did that.

"There have been changes on her staff as she's been here, but she's got a great cohesive staff. Again, people who have played at a high level who have played the college game and understand what our student-athletes deal with: The rigors of being a D-I college athlete and the rigors of being at a pretty good academic institution. All those pieces have come together and it's created great team chemistry among the staff, the coaches and the players. Everybody's on the same page."

The Duquesne women (19-4, 6-2 in A-10) go for their 20th victory Wednesday against Saint Louis (7-16, 1-7) at the A.J. Palumbo Center.

"We've been able to bring in student-athletes, recruits, who are at a whole different level than what we had been recruiting in the past," Amodio said. "A few recruits we really wanted have not chosen to come to Duquesne and instead they've gone to BCS programs. We're not losing student-athletes that we may have in the past to lesser conferences. They're going to BCS programs. So we know we're recruiting the right people."

This will be a key recruiting year for both programs because, if nothing else, they'll be recruiting from a position of strength. Players want to play for a winner, a team they believe has a chance to be competitive throughout their career.

Think Duquesne hasn't upgraded its image around the conference? After the Bonnies hit a couple of late 3-pointers to beat the Dukes on Saturday, their capacity crowd rushed the court to celebrate ending Duquesne's 11-game winning streak. Does anyone remember the last time a fan base stormed the court to celebrate beating the Dukes?

While the Dukes won't have the momentum from that winning streak to carry over into the Xavier game, they have proven to be a resilient, let's-move-on-to-next-one group that doesn't spend much time thinking about the game just played. And while most coaches don't enjoy a week off between games, such a break could be beneficial to a team that plays at a fast-forward pace, with a visible intensity and an unswerving commitment to playing shutdown defense. Rest rarely enters into such an equation.

"My thought is our kids have given us a great effort every time coming out of the gate, whether we've won or lost," Everhart said. "I have great confidence in our ability to play hard, stay focused and stay on an even keel." Everhart gave his players a couple of days off early in the week following three games in seven days last week.

"There can be a tendency to lose your edge if don't manage it the right way," Everhart said. "We want to try to do some scrimmage stuff to keep that edge but, at the same time, not put the guys in situations where we're as spent as we were last week playing three."

Especially when these Dukes will be playing the biggest regular season game any of them have played at Duquesne.

Care to go back to the days of 8-22 in 2004-05 and 3-24 in 2005-06, when the idea of playing such a game would have been ridiculed as being farcical? Didn't think so.


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