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Raising The Bar On The Bluff

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"Eye of the Tiger" blares on the loudspeakers as the Duquesne Dukes, tied for first place in the Atlantic 10 Conference heading into a February 13 showdown with Xavier, sprint on to the court. The raucous CONSOL Energy Center crowd of 10,509, largest for a non-Pitt opponent at home since 1973, is audible from Duquesne's campus a few blocks away.

The Dukes' once-drowsy student section totes giant headshots of Bill Clark, T.J. McConnell -- and Betty White. Two guys with ski goggles and head-to-toe, skin-tight body suits—half red, half blue—spin in circles as one sits on the other's shoulders.

Eat your heart out, Oakland Zoo.

Such a scene scarcely seemed possible when Dukes head coach Ron Everhart arrived on the Bluff five years ago. Yet Everhart, who revitalized moribund programs at McNeese State and Northeastern, has cultivated a winning mentality at a program once resigned to the A-10's cellar.

“The only way to change anything is to work harder than you think you can,” Everhart said. “Working effectively outside of your comfort zone, I think you have a chance to change the way your guys feel about winning and losing.”

Brandin Knight, a former Pitt star and current assistant coach who helped turn the dormant Panthers into a powerhouse, praises Everhart’s demeanor.

“He’s a tough, hard-working guy and I think it’s starting to rub off on them,” Knight said. “You have to change the mentality of the players and the program. They buy into the team concept and winning being the ultimate goal.”

Everhart has lifted the Dukes to 15-plus victories in each of the past four seasons. The 2010-11 squad set a school record with an 8-0 start in conference play and reeled off 11 straight wins from late December to early February, Duquesne’s longest streak since 1970-71. They earned AP poll votes from January 24 to February 7. The talent exists to make a deep A-10 tourney run, but the Dukes will need to win the Atlantic City tournament to experience March Madness for the first time in 34 years.

Not that anyone is counting that possibility out. But certainly no one saw it coming – Duquesne was picked to finish eighth in the preseason A-10 coaches and media poll.

While the 2008-09 Dukes came within six points of topping Temple in the A-10 Championship game and ending the NCAA drought, settling for an NIT appearance, last year’s team slumped to 16-16. Everhart’s frenetic, transition-based offense stalled without the on-court leadership of first-team All-A-10 guard Aaron Jackson. Without "A.J." running the show, the Dukes dipped to sixth in the conference in points per game after ranking first in ’06-07 and ’07-08 and second in ’08-09. Clark was suspended for the club’s CBI game against Princeton, which Duquesne lost by 14 points. Three players, including starting guard Melquan Bolding, transferred after the season.

To return the team to its “rip and run” style, Everhart knew he needed better ball handlers.

“We tried to address that situation in recruiting in terms of bringing in T.J. and Mike [Talley], who were in our opinion very good playmakers,” Everhart said. “Addressing it in recruiting and the fact that we work on it every day has certainly made us improve.”

With McConnell and Talley in the back court and Clark, Damian Saunders and B.J. Monteiro taking better care of the ball, the Dukes are second in the nation in assists per game, lead the country in turnover margin, and have reclaimed the top spot in A-10 scoring.

“We’re making that extra pass that you have to to go from getting a decent shot to a really great shot,” Everhart said.

Duquesne is also much improved from deep, ranking second in the conference in 3-point field goal percentage after ranking last in ’09-10. That’s especially important for a club featuring one starter taller than 6-5.

“We have to shoot the 3 well because we’re undersized,” Everhart said. “The fact is, when your team has better passers, your shots become much more open.”

McConnell facilitates many of those open shots. The WPIAL’s fifth all-time scorer and leading three-point shooter hails from Pittsburgh basketball’s first family. McConnell’s father, Tim, coached him to a WPIAL title at Chartiers Valley. Aunt Suzie McConnell-Serio is the Duquesne women’s head coach and a Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame inductee.

A five-time A-10 Rookie of the Week, McConnell ranks near the top of the conference in assist-to-turnover ratio and steals.

"T.J. is filling Aaron [Jackson's] spot," Clark told PSR's Anthony Jaskulski, comparing the freshman to one of the premier players to wear a Dukes jersey over the past two decades. "He's doing a good job breaking the press, and getting everybody the ball. He's just getting better every game," Clark said.

"He does a little bit of everything, and that's what makes him special," Everhart said.  

Despite the accolades, McConnell gets no deferential treatment. That’s how he likes it.

“No one is the special player here,” McConnell said. “We’re a team, and that’s how it’s going to stay.”

Seniors Clark and Saunders, who have never experienced a losing season, have accomplished much on the court – Clark moved into the school’s all-time top ten in scoring, and reigning A-10 Defensive Player of the Year Saunders holds school records for steals and blocked shots. But mentoring a young roster is just as important to them.

“I try to lead by example,” Clark said. “The fact that I’ve been here for four years, I understand what it takes, especially for the big game.”

“Go out there and play hard every night,” Saunders said. “Come to practice and make sure they’re focused, make sure their mind is right and make sure they’re ready for everything coach gives them.”

Knight said forming bonds with players entering the program is paramount.

“When new guys come in, the first thing is make them feel welcome,” Knight said. “The older guys have seen how it helps the younger guys – whether it’s in the weight room, the court, whatever. That tradition carries over to the next generation. Although the faces may change, the results will be the same, or hopefully better.”

Recognizing how to deal with success and high expectations is the next lesson for the Dukes. After finally snapping an extended losing skid that saw them free-fall from first in the league at 8-0 to fourth at 10-5, the Dukes battle Richmond on Saturday for the right to a first-round bye in the A-10 tourney.

Making the NCAA Tournament—which seemed not only realistic but probable just three weeks ago—will now require the Dukes to win the conference tournament. Doing so, however, would be the culmination of the seniors’ hard work.

“It’s like putting the cap on when you graduate,” Saunders said. “Me and Bill have been striving for that since we got here.”

“Go out with a bang,” Clark said. “I think it would be a great opportunity for the underclassmen to see great competition they’re going to be playing against over the years. Not just Pitt or West Virginia, but some schools from the SEC or the Big Ten,” he said.

John Gasaway, a writer for Basketball Prospectus and ESPN Insider, thinks the Dukes are well-positioned to remain among the A-10’s elite.

“They play a fast style that recruits like,” he said. “They’re located in a major city in the middle of a fertile recruiting area. And they belong to a conference that consistently puts at-large teams into the NCAA tournament.”

McConnell said Everhart’s competitive nature attracts recruits. “No one coaches like he does. He’s really intense and I like that about him,” McConnell said.

Duquesne now expects to win, and beating the Dukes is a big deal -- ask St. Bonnie's fans, who stormed the court after ending Duquesne's win streak on February 5. But for the winning ways to continue, Everhart said, the Dukes must focus on today.

“It’s all about the next play, he said. “I’m one of these live-for-the-day guys. I want to be better right now coming off the floor than we were when we walked on the floor two hours ago. That's it. That's the bottom line."

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