Pitt, Duquesne, RMU among local basketball teams stuck in a rut

At a watering hole in the Greenfield section of Pittsburgh this weekend, Guy Fieri’s “Tournament of Champions” was being shown on two televisions.

At the head of the room on a main screen, The Players Championship PGA Tour event was in full view until someone changed the channel to ION, which was showing a crime drama rerun. Yet another television screen was dark.

Elsewhere in the country, people were starting to dance. The college basketball conference tournaments were winding down in an effort to define the 68-team field for the NCAA Tournament.

Welcome to “The Burgh”, where basketball takes a back seat, even when March Madness is in town.

“I never really got into basketball,” said one patron, who wished to remain anonymous. “I like college basketball, but I don’t watch the NBA.”

When reminded on Saturday of the impending Sunday draft show which was to be aired the following day at the end of the Division I Conference Tournament Finals, the man shrugged and said, “ I miss the Big East,” presumably referring to Pitt’s days in the conference, when the Panthers were regularly challenged for an NCAA Tournament bid.

The annual March Madness Sunday night show revealed a blockbuster lineup for first and second round matches in the South Region at PPG Paints Arena.

On Friday, Ohio State takes on Loyola Chicago, Villanova takes on Delaware, Illinois takes on Chattanooga and Houston takes on UAB, with the winners advancing to replay Sunday in the second round.

Nothing to do

These days, there’s not much to cheer about in local college basketball.

Pitt, Duquesne and Robert Morris all concluded 20 losing seasons with a whimper in their respective conference tournaments. Only RMU managed a victory in the Horizon League but were rebounded in the second round.

Although all three coaches recently received votes of confidence from their schools, they know they need to get it right, sooner rather than later.

“We have to improve, so we have a lot of work to do,” Robert Morris coach Andy Toole said after the Colonials’ 83-67 loss to Cleveland State. RMU finished its second Horizon League season at 8-24.

Pitt’s Jeff Capel and Duquesne’s Keith Dambrot echoed that sentiment.

“We need to have better players…we need to recruit better,” Capel said following Pitt’s 66-46 loss to Boston College in the first round of the ACC Tournament, setting the Panthers’ final record at 11-21.

At Duquesne, Dambrot watched the Dukes (6-24) lose their last 17 games to tie a school record for the longest losing streak. As they nearly ended the skid in a first round game of the Atlantic 10 tournament, Rhode Island held on for a 79-77 win.

“We have a lot of work to do as a staff and a program to get back to where we were (21-9, 11-7 A-10 in 2019-20),” Dambrot said.

It’s a regional drought

Is it any wonder that interest has waned and arena seats are empty at the three major Division I schools in the Pittsburgh market?

It’s bad enough that basketball, even in its best days, doesn’t usually rule these areas (remember the ABA’s Pittsburgh Pipers, who won the league’s first championship and quickly left the city amid horribly low attendance figures?).

Robert Morris secured a ticket to the NCAA Tournament in his senior year in the Northeastern Conference in 2020, but the event was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

A year later, the school moved to the Horizon, where it has just completed its second season.

So, while we wait for the return of success in the “Big 3”, what about a regional vision?

Expanding the girth, do you have any luck with West Virginia and Penn State? No, the two haven’t made it to any postseason tournaments beyond their conference this season. West Virginia had the most recent success — making the NCAA last season and every year from 2015 through 2018 — and Penn State managed an NIT championship in 2018.

Saint Francis? Forget it.

Only Youngstown State is capable of continuing to play this season. The Penguins (18-14) host Morgan State (13-14) Wednesday night in a first-round game in the obscure collegeinsider.com tournament.

All of this further intensifies the unease surrounding a Western Pennsylvania fanbase that clearly hates losers (even winners in basketball seem like new stuff.).

Former Robert Morris coach Matt Furjanic said he thinks Pittsburgh fans are known for their love of the winner. With city teams floundering, they don’t like to go out and fight for parking spots and pay for what comes with it — tickets, concessions — when there’s more access to game telecasts and social media .

“Losing teams just don’t draw,” he said.

But is this true for all sports?

Remember when?

It’s not just Pitt who has struggled so hard to pick up wins. The Panthers, at times, have been pretty good — certainly better than the current version — since their failed attempt in 2011 to make a serious run, when they lost a one-point decision to Butler in the second round.

It was 11 years ago.

Duquesne hasn’t danced in 45 years, although the Dukes have been respectable until this season under Dambrot, who just completed his fifth year.

Robert Morris, since winning the NEC Championship in 2020, has struggled on the Horizon, winning a total of eight games in two seasons.

Since that 2011 season at Pitt, where the top-ranked Panthers were eliminated in Washington, DC, when Butler’s Matt Howard sank a free throw with 0.8 seconds left, there’s been very little reason to dance.

Penn State and West Virginia joined the Panthers in the NCAA Tournament in 2011. Since then, Pitt has made three more appearances with little to show for it.

Robert Morris has qualified twice, in 2015 and 2020, and West Virginia reached the Final Four in 2010.

Since joining Division I, Robert Morris made his first two NCAA Tournament appearances in back-to-back seasons in 1982-83 under Furjanic, who said it was just a different era.

“It was a time when we were starting the whole ‘City of Champions’ mantra,” he said. “Part of what’s happening today, I believe, is that the level of interest has gone down because local teams haven’t been able to recruit locally as much as before.

“You just don’t have the high school players that coaches can fight against for recruitment.”

Dave Mackall is a contributing writer for Tribune-Review.

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