I’ve written about Duquesne basketball for years, but I’m going to take that hat off for this piece and look at the broader Pittsburgh college hoops scene. With the Dukes and Pitt seemingly turning their ships around and Robert Morris doing its normal thing at or near the top of the NEC during the 2018-19 season, I think it’s becoming more reasonable to ask the questions “can all three local teams find their way into the NCAA tournament in the same season?” and “when can this realistically be achieved?”
The answer to the first question is a simple ‘yes’, but it’s always been yes. The odds just improve as all three schools get more competitive.
All three teams will need to win their conference tournaments to enter the tournament in 2019. Robert Morris currently sits tied for first with nearby St. Francis of Loretto in the automatic one-bid NEC. Quietly, they have a pretty strong shot at making the dance this year. Even though the Colonials have the lowest RPI among the three schools, RMU’s path to a crown is more clear than the A-10 even in a down year and the ACC. Pitt and Duquesne are not finished products, but both programs have seen some signs of resiliency after recent coaching changes. Both schools have already met or exceeded their 2017-18 win totals with a handful of games remaining in the regular season and at least one for each in the conference tournament. Despite winning two of their last five, the Dukes are tied for fifth in a soft Atlantic 10 by virtue of their head-to-head tiebreaker over Saint Louis. The Panthers have struggled in the ACC, but have manged to upset excellent Louisville and Florida St. teams.
The answer to when we might see all the local teams dance is a little more complicated. By finishing in the top four of the NEC, Robert Morris will give themselves a realistic shot at an NEC title every year. While they’re still one of the better teams in the conference, they haven’t dominated the league the way they did under Mike Rice and early in Andy Toole’s tenure. They’ve won some regular season titles in the league, but Toole’s crew have only won the conference tournament once in his eight years. There is zero room for error in March if the Moon Township side wants to dance. The Colonials lose three of their four leading scorers after this season, but don’t expect them to miss much of a beat. Two of their current starters and the solid Koby Thomas are sophomores. While the Colonials aren’t as young as Pitt or Duquesne, they should reload quickly. Robert Morris’ window is open and it probably won’t close any time soon.
Despite their early big wins in the conference, Pitt has shown it still isn’t quite ready for prime time in the ACC. The Panthers have a promising back court built around three solid freshman in Xavier Johnson, Trey McGowens, and Au’Diese Toney, but don’t have the depth or bodies to compete inside in Jeff Capel’s first year. They have a top recruit in Gerald Drumgoole lined up to compete for minutes on the wing with Malik Ellison and as I write this, under-recruited seven-footer Ibrahima Diallo is on campus for visit. Pitt has some warts and a somewhat unbalanced roster positionally. They need to get bigger and deeper fast, but the talent level appears to be trending in a mostly ACC caliber direction. The good news for Pitt — they can get an at large bid just by being one of the eight or nine best teams in the conference most years. They simply have more opportunities for quality, resume building wins in a single Atlantic Coast season than Duquesne will get in three years even in a good A-10 or Robert Morris will get in conference ever. Pitt will continue to get better, but they’re likely still two to three years away from a serious run at a bid.
Duquesne may have the toughest path of all the schools despite being a year ahead of the Pitt in the process. Their challenges are two-fold. There are enough good to middling teams in the A-10 that winning a conference tournament becomes quite difficult, but there aren’t enough elite teams to really stack their resume for an at-large bid. On top of that, there are a considerable amount of decent teams towards the bottom the conference that could drop a resume crushing loss on the Dukes any time they go on the road. While I see the Atlantic 10 getting stronger in a hurry over the next few years, I’m still not envisioning a return to the powerhouse with multiple teams in the top 25. Duquesne have one of the youngest teams in the country and that team has shown incredible spark, tenacity and skill despite their youth. However, it’s still missing a few key pieces like consistent three point shooting and multiple post options. They’ll need to stack the few opportunities they have for quality wins in conference while avoiding those tragic losses. I think Duquesne could start a run of regularly reaching the NIT as soon as next season, but not only do they need to get better internally to get to the dance, the league needs to get better to provide them with an ample opportunity to get there. Unlike Pitt who could go .500 in conference and get a bid, the Dukes have very little margin for error.
This piece might feel like I’m getting ahead of myself and that might be true. A lot can change or more accurately a lot will need to change for the Western PA NCAA tournament trifecta to occur. Robert Morris needs to stay as one of the stronger programs in the NEC. Pitt has a long hill to climb up a tough conference ladder. They’ll need to upgrade and develop their talent base. Both Duquesne and their league need to get better to improve their chances. Pitt and Duquesne are still well off the mark at the moment, but they have some young, foundational pieces in place and, conceivably, they should get better with age. This isn’t going to happen next year and probably not the year after that, but for the first time in about nine or ten years, you shouldn’t get laughed off the internet if you suggest it could happen in the next three to five years.