This is going to sound like a strange thing to say, but this was the best season for Duquesne basketball in a long, long time, maybe at least forty years. The women managed to end the school’s NCAA tournament drought, while the men posted only their sixth .500 regular season since 1994. Sadly, the modest success the men achieved was largely overshadowed, not by the women’s success but how they missed an opportunity to be a lot better. If you’re upset about the men it’s OK. If you’re OK with .500 and the CBI, that’s fine for now, too. If you’re a Duquesne fan and you’re finding yourself more excited about a women’s team than you ever have, well then you’re not a true American because you should have been this excited for the Women’s World Cup team in 1999.
The feelings you’re feeling are normal. This is what happens when a team you cheer for is competing at a national level for the first time in a long time. The women are having an elite year that is certainly the best in that program’s history. While the last Duquesne men’s team went to the NCAA tournament by scuffling their way to an Eastern Eight championship in 1977, this year’s women’s team belongs more in the class of the late 60’s programs. They lost their second game of the year badly to Princeton and then punished just about everyone for two months playing elite basketball and crushing good teams. The women’s team hit a few bumps in the road including the A-10 championship game, but managed to gain coaches’s poll votes from roughly mid-December. Their RPI of 18 put them deep within that less subjective top 25. It doesn’t allow for preseason expectations, projections, or program history to make it, nor does it matter who the coach is. Really, they punched their dance ticket after defeating La Salle in the regular season. Not only were they in the field, they were in comfortably. They were led by one of the best backcourts in the country in Deva’Nyar Workman and April Robinson. While neither will likely be drafted, both will get WNBA looks.
In a nutshell, the Duquesne women are good. Really, really good. They’re where a lot of fans hope the men will be. For some of us, they’re well beyond what we would consider accepting. They’re creating a name for themselves and the best may still be to come. However, don’t just take my word for it. Here is what head coach Dan Burt tweeted me about his program:
@SteveDiMiceli At a national level now – being ranked this season to our 18-19 RPI. The schedule will go up. Wait till u see the freshmen.
— Dan Burt (@Coachdanburt) March 7, 2016
In Jim Ferry’s first three seasons in charge of the men’s program at Duquesne, his teams followed an annual pattern: a disappointing non-conference record, a lousy start to conference play and then a late charge where they played their best basketball in February. In year four, the Dukes started strong and even exceeding out-of-conference expectations, lost their first three of league play before rebounding by winning five of six heading into the stretch. Based on previous seasons, we could have expected their best ball was yet to come, but you would have been wrong for thinking it. The Dukes lost their next eight before surprising NCAA bubble team St Joe’s in Philadelphia.
Visions of 2010-11 were dancing through Duquesne fans’ heads as they watched their team seemingly go from overachieving to underachieving in about three weeks. In truth, this was likely never an NIT team. Even if they had won a few more games, they likely would be in the same place they are now — the CBI. When I look at it from 10-3 non-conference or 15-7 halfway through the A-10 season, sure, it’s disappointing. However, when I consider what I was expecting in the preseason, we basically got what I expected. In my opinion, this team played roughly to what I thought the all around talent level was. The Dukes, no doubt, missed an opportunity to take bigger steps forward in 2015-16, but they still took steps forward, ones they will hopefully be able to build on after a partial rebuild next year. In the short run the difference between 16 wins and 19 wins doesn’t mean much outside of the Power 5 conferences.
As frustrating as anything about the slide were the story lines they failed to capitalize on. This is a program in need of any positive buzz it can get and outside of some hot spots, the losing squelched all the good vibes from what could have been America’s darling if only they made just a run in Brooklyn. They got stuck on a bus in a snow storm, went on a hike for pizza, met some kids from Iowa and made snow angels. When they were in the spotlight, they came across as a lovable group, but there wasn’t enough to like on the floor. On top of that, America didn’t get the opportunity to see just how good Micah Mason was and the lack of team success likely cost him a place on at least the all-league second team. On top of that, they had a team leader in Derrick Colter who played through cancer and a coach in John Rhodes, who also beat cancer while recovering from being hit by a car. You can’t make stuff like this up, but you can’t show it off when you don’t win.
The price tag for a CBI home game is around $40,000 and while the Dukes will make their third appearance in the event, they saved the money and hit the road their first two times. That’s not a ton of money in the grand scheme of things for a men’s program, but it also shows a bit of commitment by a school often criticized for its lack of interest in its success.
The men still have a shot at redemption in the CBI while Burt’s crew will get a chance to shine on the biggest stage in Storrs, Connecticut, the biggest stage in women’s basketball. It’s cool to be excited about both. If nothing else, you can enjoy a short delay of the longest off-season.