Duquesne fan’s have often said over the years that they’d like to reach the status of a mid-major power like the Gonzaga’s and Xavier’s of the world. While it’s been a pipe dream for decades now with the ineptitude of the Duquesne administration and the athletic department, I don’t think it’s that much of a pipe dream anymore.
There are several boxes you have to check when you’re a small catholic school looking to make a dent in the college basketball landscape. Duquesne has really not been able to check any of these boxes in the past but let’s look at where they’re at in their progress now.
The previous administration of Charles Dougherty very clearly didn’t care about sports or aware of the benefits of a what a successful athletic program does for the image of a school. Think of Florida Gulf Coast. Nobody outside of Fort Myers knew they existed before their run in the 2014 NCAA Tournament. After that run freshman applications at the school increased by 35%. It’s always dumbfounded me why nobody at Duquesne realized that this could happen for them or didn’t work to make it happen. President Ken Gormley seems like he “gets it”, which will go a long way not only for basketball but for all athletic programs on the bluff. Dave Harper has proven to have a vision that previous athletic director Greg Amodio didn’t. Harper has done a great job fundraising for the new Cooper Fieldhouse which will benefit the university as a whole and raise the profile of the school in the Pittsburgh community.
After Duquesne’s ill-advised firing of Ron Everhart they made the ill-advised decision of hiring Jim Ferry. I’m not even going into that decision here. The decision to hire Keith Dambrot and give him a $7 million contract showed the school was serious about the basketball program. Dambrot’s ties to the school fit like a glove and he has shown in a short time that his vision for the program is to be better than middle of the pack in the Atlantic 10. If you’re not going to think big and go all the way then why bother at all? Dambrot is thinking big along with Harper which can only be a great thing. You can tell even after wins he’s not satisfied and the hunger to win the conference is there. The best mid-majors do a great job identifying the right coach and hiring him. Harper did that with Dambrot.
The best mid-majors develop a consistent recruiting footprint and are also able to identify under the radar prospects. Duquesne has done a nice job on both. Assistant coach Charles Thomas has absolutely cleaned up in the state of Michigan while the other coaches have cleaned up in the state of Ohio. Establishing a presence in these two states and continuing to go the well there will push Duquesne to the upper part of the conference. Of course they will still have to compete with the Dayton’s of the world for the same recruits which is an uphill battle, but a battle Dambrot has shown he is not afraid of having.
On the second point, Dambrot and staff have done a tremendous job identifying under the radar guys which has accelerated the rebuild of the program. In his first spring signing period Dambrot signed Eric Williams Jr who was signed to a division II school in West Virginia. Not even Dambrot could have expected Williams to do what he did as a freshman. Most nights he was not only the best player on the floor for Duquesne, but the best player on the floor period. While his sophomore year has had its roadblocks of late, Williams still looks to be a cornerstone in the rebirth of Duquesne basketball.
If we’re talking under the radar of course we have to mention Sincere Carry. Carry was dominant playing in an ultra competitive high school landscape in Ohio. Knee injuries kept him from gaining any division I offers and eventually signing with West Liberty State. After seeing him play once you can see why Dambrot fell in love with the play of Carry. He’s a true floor general who can also keep the defense honest with his own shot. As a rebuilding mid-major you have to take a chance on guys who are getting overlooked because of injuries. So far that investment has paid off ten fold. Dambrot has to hope that Carry can stay healthy. If he can he will lead Duquesne to an NCAA Tournament birth by the time his eligibility is used up.
This is the the final pillar a mid-major needs to become nationally relevant and stay there. This is also where Duquesne is majorly lagging behind others in. There are lots of opinions on how to get student and alumni support and bigger crowds at Palumbo. The bottom line is that there needs to be significant wins and sustained postseason appearances. Pittsburgh is a great sports city and will support a winner. Unfortunately Duquesne has not done much winning in 40+ years so any goodwill earned has been long gone.
Long time fans of the program know that this support is needed for the program to flourish, but the winning has to come first. The fans who do show up to Palumbo every night are boisterous and passionate about the program. The problem is that there just aren’t enough of them.
Student support for the program peaked at the City game at PPG Paints Arena when 1,400+ student s attended and were loud and very much into the game. Attendance has tapered down to the dozen since that game, but once again winning is needed. The student body needs energized and Dambrot is doing that. Having players that are also relatable and likable is doing that also. Dambrot, his staff and players are all easy and a joy to be around. Plenty of ideas have been floated around on how to increase student attendance but none of them will do it except for winning big. For Duquesne to be discussed with the likes of the Dayton’s and VCU’s they will need the strong support of their student body.
I’ve talked to many people in the business directly involved in coaching and media members who cover college basketball for a living. They all agree that this is a program that looks ready to take the next step under Dambrot. Whether they can become a consistent contender in the Atlantic 10 remains to be seen, but the infrastructure and support is there now to make it happen. With the new facility opening in two years and the strong recruiting that the staff have done I don’t doubt that this will happen. In my opinion, it’s just a matter of when.