ALAN ROBINSON: Dukes Go West to Try to Get Back A Season Gone Astray

March 14, 2011

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

By Alan Robinson

Now that the regular season and the Atlantic 10 tournament are over - unfortunately for Duquesne, much too early - maybe now we can figure out which Dukes team should be remembered as the true face of the 2010-11 season.

Was it the team that won 11 consecutive games, led the conference with an 8-0 record and was called by George Washington coach Karl Hobbs "the best team in the Atlantic 10, by far?" The team that frustrated opponents with its speed, aggression and relentless trapping and pressing?

Or was it the team that lost its way by dropping seven of its last nine games, falling to fourth place in the A-10 and dropping out of contention for an NCAA Tournament at-large berth? The team that, at times, lacked the confidence it amply possessed during the winning streak, repeatedly misfired at the foul line and couldn't lure opponents into the same up-and-down game at which it thrived during the initial two-thirds of the season?

The same team that found its path to the A-10 title game cleared of No. 5-seeded GW and top-seeded Xavier by upsets, only to become an upset victim itself when it lost to 12th-seeded Saint Joseph's 93-90 on Friday - an opponent it led by 24 points on the Hawks' home court in early January?

Maybe the Dukes will find out in the post-A10 season - and, yes, there will be one after Duquesne accepted a bid Sunday night to play in the College Basketball Invitational for the second season in a row. It will be the Dukes' third consecutive postseason appearance, something that hasn't happened at Duquesne since the 1970s.

The Dukes (18-12) will play Wednesday night at Montana (21-10), the Big Sky Conference tournament runners-up who shoot the ball well and defend well, but don't like to play at the pace and tempo the Dukes prefer. Win, and Duquesne likely will be play next Monday at Oregon's plush new basketball palace, as long as the Ducks beat Weber State in what essentially is the CBI's Western Region.



"I'm excited our kids have a chance to play in the postseason," coach Ron Everhart. "I don't think we liked the way we ended the season, and this gives us a chance to make up for some of the disappointing losses we've had. I think our guys welcome the opportunity, and want to get back on the court again. I'm confident they'll be ready - and ready to compete."

And while this isn't the way the Dukes wanted to be heading into their mini-version of March Madness, perhaps this should be remembered: Most teams are rarely as good as they are at their peak and, conversely, are rarely as bad as they are when they reach the nadir of their season.

Could a team with two true freshmen guards, only one starter taller than 6-foot-5 - and none taller than 6-7 - and some streaky shooters realistically expect to keep playing the way it did while going 16-5 and nearly beating West Virginia, Penn State and George Mason? Probably not. Give credit to Everhart and his players that their innovative and effective system worked as long and as well as it did.

At some point, trying to repeatedly outleap opposing rebounder after rebounder that was inches taller wore on the 6-7 Damian Saunders and the 6-5 Bill Clark, who played all season without a true center between them. About the same time, B.J. Monteiro's improvement leveled off and guards T.J. McConnell and Mike Talley learned that cleverness, fast hands and quick feet aren't always enough to gain an upper hand on much more experienced guards, such as Xavier's Tu Holloway, who may be playing soon at a much-higher level.

But, at the same time, should the Dukes have dipped as precipitously as they did? Probably not. The 1-point losses to Dayton and Rhode Island will hurt for a long time, and they should.

Still, fans often forget that opposing players that were hurt when teams first meet may get better for the rematch. Coaches make adjustments and take away features of a team's offense that worked the first time. They also might implement a wrinkle that is effective, too. There are coaches on both benches, not just one.

And when a team is slumping, it's easy to point fingers, lay blame, get disgusted. But perhaps those discouraged by Duquesne's play during the final month of the season should be asked that, when the season started, if they would have accepted an 18-12 record and a fourth-place finish in the A-10 with an all-freshman backcourt, a roster with only two seniors who played much and a schedule that was demanding.

The answer? Most likely, yes.

Something else to remember: Programs such as Xavier, Temple, Dayton, and Richmond possess deeper pools of talent and own more recent tradition than Duquesne does. They're established programs with a history of sending players to the NBA. Yet Duquesne isn't that far away from being close to their level.

So, even before the season is officially over, let's look at all that's good -- and what needs to get better.


--- There's an effective, attractive program in place. Players love to play in a system that allows them to accumulate statistics, yet also win while sharing the ball and getting their teammates involved. Everhart has developed and implemented just such a system; now he needs to allow it to mature, while adding players who not only fit in but also raise the overall talent level.

--- McConnell, Talley and Sean Johnson will be back for multiple seasons. At this time next season, barring injury, there might not be a better guard trio in the Atlantic 10.

--- There's playing time to be offered immediately, and that attracts recruits.

--- The Dukes showed they can win consistently without size; add some, and the overall program gets better.

--- Everyone played HARD, nearly all season long. There are quite a few major college basketball coaches out there, some with far more talent, who wish they could say the same thing about their teams.

--- What Duquesne does is fun to watch. Running, pressing, trapping, fast breaking, dunking, scoring - it's what every fan loves about college basketball. Perhaps more fans will discover that next season.

--- There should be less turnover of the roster during this offseason, and that's a good thing. Stability often leads to improvement as players learn a system, then grow in it. A college basketball team across town nicknamed Pitt has proven that can be a path to sustainable success. And it's much easier to coach when the team isn't always changing faces and players aren't being constantly taught something new.


--- The Dukes need to get taller. That doesn't mean Everhart and assistants Greg Gary, Steve Hall and Rodney Crawford need to bring in a couple of 7-footers. But, no matter how athletic a team is, it's difficult to constantly give up 3 inches per man up front and rebound consistently well. Rebounding and free throw shooting were Duquesne's major weaknesses all season.

--- Players such as Joel Wright, Andre Marhold and Jerry Jones need to show more next season. Each had brief glimpse. There needs to be a lot more in 2011-12, and that begins with a rugged offseason program. Most college basketball coaches will tell you that if a player truly wants to get better, summer is the time to do it.

--- Monteiro needs to decide if he wants to be a good player, or a very, very good one who has a chance for a lengthy career at the next level of basketball.

--- Much of the recruiting for next season still must be done. There's a large pool of available players waiting out there but, when the player acquisition is being done in April rather than October, the chance for failure increases because much of the elite talent already has committed. So, while a coach might find a jewel that can fit into a program for seasons, there's also a lot of cubic zirconia out there. The challenge for Everhart is to find the diamonds and ignore the rough cuts.

--- A lot of the rebounds, steals, blocked shots and 3-point shooting will vanish once Saunders and Clark leave. The statistical lines that each put up repeatedly aren't easily replaced in a single offseason.

The Dukes still have a chance to lessen some of the disappointment resulting from their late-season slide if they play well in the CBI. They showed in January they've got enough to beat any team they'll face. What they don't want to do is wait until next season to prove it.


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