Clock keeps ticking on Dukes’ tourney drought

Courtesy of Duquesne Athletics | Mike Lewis II (front right), Isiaha Mike (back right), Emile Blackman Jr. (front center) and Tarin Smith (back left) huddle up and look on in disappointment as they watched a double-digit lead slip away against SJU.
Courtesy of Duquesne Athletics | Mike Lewis II (front right), Isiaha Mike (back right), Emile Blackman Jr. (front center) and Tarin Smith (back left) huddle up and look on in disappointment as they watched a double-digit lead slip away against SJU.

By Andrew Holman | Sports Editor

It’s time for a good old-fashioned reality check — the Duquesne men’s basketball program is a dumpster fire.

Duquesne men’s basketball over the last 40 years has been a disgrace to the university, and after Jim Ferry’s firing last week, the program finds itself in yet another position to rebuild as it has too many times during this four-decade drought.

There are mixed opinions from fans of the program on whether or not Ferry should have been fired following an underwhelming 10-22 campaign this past season that included just three A-10 wins. Either way, Ferry deserves very little blame for the current state of the program. The truth is the program is not much worse off now than it was when Ferry inherited it.

The Dukes have missed every NCAA tournament since 1977, and have had just two 20-win seasons since former coach Red Manning left the program in 1974.

Duquesne is the lone current member of the Atlantic 10 Conference that has not tasted the Big Dance in the past 40 years. It is also tied with George Mason and La Salle for the fewest NIT bids in that same time span. Duquesne has five fewer combined postseason tournament appearances than any other school in the league.

It is laughable that a program in a major conference has only one 20-win season since 2000, the second fewest among the 14 A-10 teams.

The longer this losing culture glooms over the men’s basketball program, the less and less any coach with an even semi-reputable résumé will want to take on the challenge of rebuilding it.

Right now, the pressure lies squarely on the shoulders of University President Ken Gormley and Athletics Director Dave Harper. Harper has the right idea. He has opened up the discussion of venue improvements to the A.J. Palumbo Center and it seems he is willing to invest more money into bettering the program. Coming over from Dayton, Harper knows what it takes to build a big-time men’s basketball powerhouse at a small, mid-major university.

Hiring the right coach will not fix the problem alone, but is still a key piece to the bigger picture.

But let’s not crowd the discussion swirling around the Duquesne coaching vacancy with washed-up, proven losers. The last thing this program needs is an old coach with waning passion, who is out of touch with recruits and on the downswing of his career.

It’s time to give a young, energized coach a chance to take over a program and see if he can run with the opportunity.

Fans hoping to land an up-and-coming head coach from a smaller Division I program are likely a bit too optimistic. Phenom coaches like Gregg Marshall (Wichita State) and Dan Muller (Illinois State) aren’t coming to the Bluff, and even Pat Kelsey (Winthrop) might be a long shot.

Duquesne might be a step up conference-wise for these coaches, but they are already at more attractive places than Duquesne, so why leave?

Secondly, there is no sense in risking the positive hype and credibility they have generated around each of their names by taking a stab at rebuilding Duquesne. They would flee for Illinois or NC State before ever considering the mess that is Duquesne men’s basketball.

Duquesne’s best chance at landing a coach who can successfully resurrect the program will be by hiring a top tier assistant coach with a proven recruiting track record.

Here’s a name: Travis Steele.

Steele is the associate head coach at Xavier University under Chris Mack. In his nine years with the Musketeers, Steele has been a part of eight NCAA tournament teams, which have reached the Sweet 16 four times during that span. He has worked under a pair of elite coaches in Mack and Sean Miller (Arizona) and alongside other notable assistants including Kelsey and Luke Murray.

In the past few seasons alone, Steele has brought in big-time recruits like Edmond Sumner and Trevon Bluiett, both of whom will almost certainly be playing in the NBA in the near future. He also recruited and signed the No. 6 point guard in the country, Paul Scruggs, as part of an impressive 2017 recruiting class for the X-men. Working alongside Mack and Murray, Xavier’s incoming class was ranked No. 6 in the country by ESPN and

So what can he do to change the culture at Duquesne? Well first and foremost, he can recruit. With proven recruiting success in basketball factories like Ohio and Indiana, Steele has the recruiting prowess to convince incoming recruits like Jamari Wheeler to stand by his commitment and to join the solid cast already in place with Mike Lewis II, Isiaha Mike, Tarin Smith and Nakye Sanders.

Of course Duquesne doesn’t have the frenzied basketball atmosphere or the facilities that Xavier has to offer recruits, but otherwise the schools are relatively similar. Both are small-to-medium sized private schools located in major cities, which provide a quality education.

If Steele can recruit four-star, ESPN Top 100 recruits at Xavier then surely over time he could bring in an impressive class full of three and four star recruits to Duquesne.

He has also coached under highly-respected mentors, who have perceivably groomed him into a fine young coach schematically. His name has been brought up in head coach search conversations over the past few years for destinations such as Western Kentucky, Northern Kentucky and Wright State.

With a promise for a long-term contract as well as facility upgrades and continued commitment to the basketball program from Harper, a guy like Travis Steele might just be willing to accept the offer. And if Duquesne can stumble into a Steele or Kelsey type hire, they should not be afraid to take the chance.

Remember though, this is going to be a long process. Give Ferry’s replacement, whoever he may be, a fair shake and give him time to get this train back on the right track. And also, a message to the students, fans and alumni, this young team and new head coach need your support. It’s about time the Palumbo Center starts getting some butts in its seats once again.

It is only with a perfect mixture of coaching, recruits, administrative backing and fan support that the Duquesne men’s basketball program can FINALLY dance once again.