ICYMI: If Xavier and Gonzaga can do it, why can’t Duquesne?

I want to migrate some still relevant content from the old Yuku site and TPOP to WWTR. This piece was originally published on 1/13/13, but I could have just as easily written it yesterday.

Following the City Game defeat, I saw a number of Duquesne fans reflecting on our lowly state at the moment and our inability to break through and beat BCS teams on a regular basis. They looked at other more successful programs at similar schools like Gonzaga and Xavier and asked the natural question “why can’t that be us?”

I think it’s worth noting I operate under a couple assumptions when it comes to our potential as a program:

Assumption 1 – I think the Dukes have financial resources comparable to both Xavier and Gonzaga before they broke out. In fact, I think we might even be in a little better shape.

Assumption 2 – It’s much easier to move into college basketball mediocrity than it is to move into the above average range. It’s even harder to move into the elite

Assumption 3 – Success can beget success but it does not guarantee that success will be sustained.

The Bulldogs and Musketeers make for an interesting case study as their rise to prominence developed in a very different way. For Gonzaga, it was meteroric. They made the NCAA tournament for the first time in 1995 and in 1999, they went on a run to the Elite Eight as a 10 seed. It had been eight years since a double digit seed reached regional finals and that was A-10 power Temple. As a result, the sport world fell in the love with the Bulldogs. That run to the regional semifinals made Gonzaga a household name and turned them immediately into a destination for top recruits and future NBA players who would rattle off eight consecutive WCC player of the year awards and ten straight regular season league titles. Since the winning began, they’ve gone from an arena smaller than the AJ Palumbo Center to a 6000 capacity all seater.

Where Gonzaga was an overnight sensation, Xavier’s rise to prominence took quite a bit longer. In 1983, they returned to the NCAA tournament for the first time in two decades  while playing in the MCC, now the Horizon. From there it took them another seven years to earn a single digit seed. and another ten for them to become a perennial participant and a true contender. Since 2001, they’ve only missed the dance once while making the sweet sixteen five times and elite eight twice. Like Duquesne, they had attendance issues and were buried in a competitive sports market in 1983. That year, they only drew 3000 fans to the Cincinnati Gardens situated a couple of miles away from campus. Like Gonzaga, they invested in their facilities and built a new arena on campus to accommodate a growing fanbase.  Over the next 20 years attendance rose steadily to the point where they began to consistently sell out the new 10,000 seat Cintas Center.

Both schools are evidence that a school like Duquesne can compete nationally in the BCS football era. The path taken by Gonzaga is possible but unlikely for the Dukes or anyone else for that matter. Of course, it seems to happen with greater frequency these days with Butler, VCU and George Mason combing for four trips to the Final Four. However, it is still a long shot.  It’s still very rare for small conference Cinderella’s to capitalize on their deep runs in the NCAA tournament and sustain success over a period of time. For every Gonzaga, there is a Siena and a St Joe’s. For every Butler, there is a Valpo and Pacific. Most small schools simply do not have the infrastructure in place to capitalize and more often than not the NCAA pushes turn out to be flukes. Following Xavier’s trajectory seems a little more likely and sustainable. Of course, Duquesne fans aren’t going to want to hear about a 15-20 year plan from the time we reach the NCAA tournament for the first time, but this is probably reality if we want it to be us. The slow build takes time and I don’t think any AD whose plan is to catch lightning in a bottle is worth a damn. Of course, any AD who isn’t ready to catch the lightning isn’t worth much either.

While there are some similarities with Duquesne, Gonzaga and X, there are some differences as well. The Bulldogs and Musketeers played in less competitive conferences and were able to take advantage of being a big fish in a small pond. Duquesne will have to rise amongst a number of other programs making a significant push in the A-10  no matter who is left following C7 raids.  Gonzaga and X also saw their coaches swooped up by bigger programs. This is a sign of growth not of dysfunction in my opinion. Pretty much every program that has made a break through had a coach leave for a better job at some point. Problem is that you’re back to square one when the replacement gets botched. When Dan Monson leaves, not everyone finds a Mark Few. Same goes for Pete Gillen, Skip Prosser, Thad Mata and Sean Miller. There is a constant need for infusing money and reinvesting in the team to continue to build whether it’s facilities or coaches. You can’t rest on your victories.

The Dukes have taken the first step into college basketball mediocrity. It remains to be seen how or if they can reach the next level. Of course, the focus right now needs to be on getting to the NCAA tournament. They can’t get much further than they already have without the Big Dance. As Gonzaga can attest, once you’re there, anything can happen, but the expectation of such a run should not be part of the plan. Patience should.  Mid majors from lesser conferences have broken through to compete with BCS schools. Gonzaga did it in a flash but it took Xavier a long time to reach elite levels. Duquesne is on the Xavier path until a catalyst should hurtle them to the next level. If that moment does not occur, relax because it’s going to be a while. In all likelihood we’re taking the bus to the top of the mountain not the rocket.

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