Unheralded Duquesne surges to the top of the Atlantic 10

The lightly regarded program at the top of the Atlantic 10 standings this week hasn't made the NCAA tournament since 1977 and has only finished above .500 four times in the past three decades.

That team is Duquesne, which has a chance to start 4-0 in Atlantic 10 play for the first time in school history by defeating struggling LaSalle on Wednesday night.

Overshadowed by Pittsburgh in its own town and by the likes of Xavier, Dayton and Temple in its league, Duquesne appeared headed for a forgettable season after close non-conference losses to West Virginia, Penn State and George Mason. Instead the undersized, up-tempo Dukes (11-5, 3-0) have turned it around, capping a six-game win streak on Saturday with an impressive 78-66 victory over conference favorite Temple.

Duquesne coach Ron Everhart spoke with me earlier this week about his team's turnaround. Here's what he had to say about the program's underdog mentality, Duquesne's chances of making the NCAA tournament and the leadership of seniors Bill Clark and Damian Saunders:

JE: You suffered some close losses against some of the better non-conference teams you faced. How important was it for your confidence and for the national perception of the program to beat Temple on Saturday?

RE: It was very big in terms of our kids' confidence. When you play West Virginia right down to the wire or you go to Penn State and lose on the final possession, sometimes you can lose some confidence and start to doubt what you're doing. Fortunately, we never did that. We have two freshman guards who are coaches' sons and then our two seniors who are all-league caliber guys have stepped up and been very good leaders.

JE: How do you explain taking a 22-2 lead against a team as good as Temple? Must have been one heck of a pregame speech, right?

RE: I don't think there was a whole lot to it. We talked about not having the chance to play a top 20 team in our building very often, so it was an opportunity for us to make a statement and show people we're a good basketball team. That was pretty much the pregame speech. I did think the kids responded well. I thought they've taken some pride defensively and that contributed significantly to the good start. Hopefully we can make that more of a mindset than a passing fancy.

JE: The most eye-opening stat for me from the Temple game was that you guys out-rebounded a team that's bigger than you. Were you most proud of that looking back at that game?

RE: That's something we've really tried to focus on. We talked about learning from our prior mistakes and we've stressed that. We can be a pretty good rebounding team because I think we're pretty quick in terms of getting to the ball. We're certainly not big but we've become a little more athletic and we've become a little quicker. We're playing with the kind of sense of urgency that's nice for me to see because I don't think we can be competitive if we didn't do that.

JE: How do you explain the improvement your team has made over the past month?

RE: There has been a significant change. Our freshmen have grown up a little bit, Eric Evans has become healthy and B.J. Monteiro is making significant strides in terms of his decision-making as a play-making three for us. And I think Clark and Saunders have come to the realization that in a close game they can't just do something by themselves. They have to trust their teammates and rely on them. From a chemistry perspective, that's probably the place we've improved the most over the past month. And frankly, I think we're a much better team than we were when we played West Virginia.

JE: You guys are always one of the programs that flies under the radar even in your own city. Do you think the team embraces the underdog role and plays with a bit of a chip on its shoulder?

RE: There's no question about it. We certainly aren't pampered with the big budget and the silver spoon. We try to have a workman-like attitude every day. We want to show people we can create a little bit of tradition here and be a good basketball team. I even have it as a coach because we're in a situation where prior to the last three years, we've only had one season in the 21 years prior to that where we had 16 wins or more. From my perspective, we've relished the fact that there's been a significant lack of respect for our program. We feel every day that we come out to practice, we have something to prove.

JE: Expectations were pretty high for you guys entering last season because of the run to the Atlantic 10 title game the previous year. How disappointing was it not to meet those last year and what did the team learn from that experience?

RE: I thought we had some issues that were chemistry-related. Maybe a guy taking a day off from practice or plays off here and there. I don't think guys held themselves accountable toward the end of the season. I think right now, we have guys on our team that are going to demand that will happen. That's been the most significant thing. And then we have two new assistant coaches. Those guys are not guys who coddle kids and they stress guys being accountable. Every day if I'm demanding that, they're not running to an assistant coach getting relief from that. That's been a real plus.

JE: Bill Clark has led the team in scoring and has had such a great senior year for you guys so far. How much motivation do you think he took from being suspended for that final game you guys played last season?

RE: Bill wants to win. He's a competitive kid and we weren't doing that late in the year last year. I also think he's an intelligent kid. And he was perceptive enough to see what (former Duquesne guard) Aaron Jackson did the year prior, how he turned it around and had a great senior year the year prior. What Bill did was he saw that, he embraced it, he took that work ethic and he's done a lot of the same things. Bill brings that to practice every day.

JE: Is there some urgency with Bill and Damian to leave a mark on this program in their final year at Duquesne?

RE: Absolutely. Those kids are kids who have been a big part of this program the last three years. Neither of those kids have been a part of a losing season here. They understand how to be successful. They take pride in it. When you walk into our gym, both those guys have their pictures on the wall. They've become the face of our basketball program. They've become coaches on the floor in terms of demanding effort every day in every area. That's helped us become a better team.

JE: Duquesne hasn't made the NCAA tournament since 1977. Is that a goal you guys talk about openly or is it more understood?

RE: It's understood. The idea is every year when you walk into the locker room before that first practice, it's OK, why are we doing this? What's the prize here? Why are we going to spend a lot of hours sweating, bleeding and dying for each other every day? And the answer is to be a top 64 team and try and have a chance to play for the whole deal. That's something we address right up front. After that, we don't talk about it much.

JE: You've mentioned that the program relishes the underdog role. Any concern that the team's intensity will diminish after such a big win or are you confident you can sustain that?

RE: That's hard to tell because we don't win games like this consistently. I'd like to think instead of having a letdown, we'll gain a little confidence and a gain a little swagger. I'm trying to make our kids understand that this is what we should do and what we expect of ourselves. We've set the bar here. There's no room to take a step backwards.

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