Bill Neal: College hoops is alive and well in Pittsburgh!

PITT’S NELLY CUMMINGS has been a bright spot on the Panthers this season. (Photo by Vince Butts)

:10—As a basketball kind of guy, you know, the guy who ran the Connie Hawkins Summer Basketball League every summer for years, I have to say this has been one heckuva year for the local college basketball scene. Pitt, under head coach Jeff Capel, is almost surely going to the Big Dance, aka the NCAA Tournament, and with a good showing in the ACC Tournament this week, could have a decent seeding come Selection Sunday, March 12. The Duquesne Dukes went 20-11 this year, the second time they’ve won 20 under head coach Keith Dambrot in four years, and although Robert Morris had a disappointing 16-17 record and lost in the second round of the Horizon League tourney, they have been to the NCAA Tournament 3 times in the past 15 years so we’ll give them and head coach Andrew Toole a pass this year. So, let’s talk some local hoops.

:09—The Duquesne Dukes, picked to finish dead last in the Atlantic-10 this year by most pundits, ended up in 6th place and earned a 1st-round bye in the A-10 tournament. Who would of thunk it back in October? Coach Dambrot forged a team-first attitude from his squad from the first jump ball November 8, 2022, against Montana and everyone bought into it. Under Coach Dambrot, Duquesne has edged back into relevance up on the bluff, taking the team from an almost annual afterthought in the A-10 to a solid, emerging squad that next season could be a contender and could be headed to the NIT this year. Kudos to Coach Dambrot and the players and the absolute exceptional year they’ve accomplished.

:08—In Coach Dambrot’s sixth season at Duquesne, he’s taken a program that, unfortunately, was too often mired in mediocrity and instilled in it a sense of winning and all-out effort. In order to win at the Division 1 level with the talent he’s able to attract, Coach Dambrot has to design a game plan involving all the players on his squad and he’s done a truly exceptional job of that, pushing aside egos for team play and showing the results once again this season. I believe the program has turned the corner and nothing but success lies ahead for him and his future players.

:07—Well, well, well. To all you Coach Jeff Capel haters out there, and don’t worry, I won’t mention names, Pitt basketball, picked an abysmal 14th in the ACC preseason polls, ended up in the 5th position somehow. Yeah, yeah, they hiccuped at the end and lost to a lousy Notre Dame team that cost them a share of the ACC title, but if I had told you before the season Pitt would get 5th place and end up 14-6 in the conference, you’d have been very happy and definitely taken those results. So quit your belly aching over last week and remember how much fun it was to watch Pitt beat Miami, N.C. State, North Carolina, Syracuse and roll to a very good 21-10 record.

:06—Let’s give the first real shoutout to head coach Jeff Capel and the outstanding job he’s done in moving the program back to national prominence and respectability. With ballers like Jamarius Burton, Blake Hinson and Nelly Cummings lighting it up from beyond the 3-point arc and the athletes believing 100 percent in his system, the Panthers were able to rack up victories and steadily become a team to be reckoned with under Coach Capel’s steady guiding hands. Do not be surprised at a run to the finals in the ACC Tournament and a title is not out of the realm of possibility.

:05—With a victory or two in the ACC tourney, the Panthers could end up a 12 or 13 seed and if they pull off a tourney title in the ACC they could find themselves a 9 or even an 8 seed in the NCAA brackets. They could cause some real damage if they’re able to execute their free throws and shoot the 3s like we know they’re capable of doing. Don’t think this team can’t win two the first weekend with a favorable couple of matchups and end up in the Sweet 16 with a chance at Elite Eight status. I’m just saying, stranger things have happened and this Pitt Panthers squad is completely capable of a strong legitimate run in the NCAA Tournament.

:04—Having attended numerous games at all three campuses this year and felt the visceral excitement inside their respective hoop halls, I have to tell ya the infectious atmospheres in each home gym was just another offshoot of programs on the rise and hitting on all cylinders; the raucous students shaking and rocking their respective houses till you felt like the walls might come tumbling down. The Oakland Zoo at Pitt absolutely lived up to their name and reputation and Duquesne and Robert Morris weren’t far behind. Nothing beats a college hoops atmosphere when the home team is positively killing it on the hardwood. I mean nothing.

:03—Could Pitt have the Coach of the Year and Player of the Year this year in the ACC? I say yes, Coach Capel and Blake Hinson should be the obvious choices, it’s that damn easy.

:02—Lest you think we’ve forgotten, let’s give some love to the women’s programs as well. Although a definite down year for the women at Pitt this year with a 10-20 record under head coach Lance White, there’s no doubt in my mind the Panthers will turn it around. By the way, Lance White was fired last week after five seasons as head coach. Duquesne Dukes women’s head coach Dan Burt lead his squad to an impressive 18-11 record in the A-10 though they suffered a second-round loss to George Washington last Thursday, March 2, in the A-10 Tournament but overall an exciting, winning record from Coach Burt and the Lady Dukes. And although the Robert Morris Colonials women’s squad ended their season last Tuesday, Feb. 28, with a loss to the Milwaukee Panthers and had a record of 11-20 overall this year, I predict bigger and better things under coach Charlie Buscaglia’s tutelage.

:01—Think about this for a minute. RMU returns to its rightful place and record in the Horizon League and snags another NCAA bid next year, Pitt improves to 26 or 27 wins and the outright ACC crown and Duquesne takes the next step and wins 24 and a piece of the A-10 title. Is it possible the City of Pittsburgh places three teams in the NCAA Tournament next season, maybe a 14 seed, a 12 seed and a 4 seed? Doesn’t sound that farfetched all of a sudden, does it? Can’t wait!!!




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