When you think of the Atlantic 10 conference, you probably think of perennial powers like Xavier or Temple. But did you know that Duquesne was present at the creation in 1976, when the A-10 was founded? (The other original members still in the league are UMass and George Washington.) Or that in 1977 the Dukes won the first-ever A-10 tournament behind future NBA star Norm Nixon?
Then again that's kind of the problem with Duquesne basketball. You have to go back a long, long way to find this program's last taste of success. Other schools cycled through the A-10 on their way to the bright lights of the Big East (Villanova, Pitt, Rutgers) or Big Ten (Penn State), but the Dukes stayed right where they were -- in more ways than one. To this day that A-10 championship in 1977 is also Duquesne's only conference title. The Dukes made the NCAA tournament that year, but they haven't been back since. A thrilling and tantalizing ride to the A-10 championship game in 2009 notwithstanding, DU's been mired in the league's midsection for years.
Until now. Ron Everhart's 14-5 team is 6-0 in A-10 play, tied with Xavier for first place. It's not easy to attract attention when you share your city with the AFC champions and the Big East's first-place team, but Duquesne is starting to turn heads. The Dukes even garnered a vote (singular, as in one vote) in this week's AP poll.
In other words Duquesne's been waiting for this bandwagon for a very long time, but now it's filling up fast. I invite you to hop on. Here's why.
The Dukes aren't just good, they're incredibly entertaining to watch.
If fast-paced hoops are your thing, you're going to love DU. In A-10 play the Dukes are averaging a BYU-like 72 possessions per 40 minutes. Duquesne parlays all of those trips up and down the floor into a ton of steals. A-10 teams facing this defense have committed a turnover on an incredible 29 percent of their possessions. Give a lot of the credit here to DU's T.J. McConnell. The 6-0 freshman sports one of the highest steal rates in the nation, and he's done some of his best pilfering against the Dukes' toughest opponents. Ask Pitt (McConnell recorded five steals in 32 minutes against the Panthers) or West Virginia (five steals, 34 minutes) about the young man sometime.
Just because Everhart's team records a lot of steals doesn't mean they need them.
I know what you're thinking. Plucky underdog program turns up the pressure on D, makes a ton of steals, wins some games. Great. But the first time they face a quality backcourt they'll be helpless. Well, not so fast. The fact that Duquesne forces opponents to commit turnovers doesn't necessarily mean this defense is feast-or-famine. In fact even when the other team does not give the ball away, what I call an "effective" possession, this defense is sound (with one spectacular exception -- see below). Duquesne's conference opponents are averaging just 1.25 points per effective possession. Those opponents are making just 43 percent of their twos and 32 percent of their threes.
Duquesne reminds me of Duke's national championship team. Seriously.
I'm always intrigued by teams that manage to win games even though they're demonstrably terrible at one particular facet of the sport. For the Duke Blue Devils last year, that facet was two-point shooting. You might think that's a rather important part of the game, and ordinarily you'd be right. But somehow Mike Krzyzewski's team was able to win a national title in spite of the fact that they were merely the eighth-best two-point shooting team in the ACC. By the same token Duquesne is winning games despite the fact that they're terrible at defensive rebounding. And I do mean "terrible." In A-10 play the energetic but undersized Dukes have rebounded just 62 percent of their opponents' misses. This defense relies on steals and FG defense, period.
Bill Clark's having a sensational year.
The 6-5 senior from Redono Beach, CA, has been a reliable source of points inside the arc for a while, but this year he's added perimeter accuracy to the mix. When you make 61 percent of your twos and 40 percent of your threes, you definitely qualify as the proverbial "tough match-up." In the Dukes' 78-66 win at home over Temple on January 15, Clark needed just nine shots from the field to record 22 points. Much like the team he plays for, Clark is under-hyped and overdue for a true appreciation.
The Dukes need your support.
If Duquesne doesn't win the A-10 tournament, their fate will rest in the hands of the NCAA tournament selection committee. And regardless of current performance, the committee's inclination will be to think "Xavier" and "Temple" when it thinks "A-10." Not to mention when the Dukes' "profile" is discussed in that conference room in March (assuming DU even comes to the committee's attention), two devastating and cruel words are certain to be uttered: Robert Morris. No, not the really good Robert Morris team you remember from last year, the one that scared the daylights out of Villanova in the first round of the NCAA tournament. We are speaking here instead of a team that is currently 10-9, one with losses to St. Francis (NY) and Morgan State. This year's Robert Morris team beat Duquesne 69-63 on November 19.
So, yes, the Dukes have an excellent opportunity to end their 34-year tournament drought, but they're not there yet. There's work to be done. No one will simply hand them an NCAA bid. If Duquesne gets one it will rank as far and away their best steal.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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