It has been 45 years since the Duquesne men’s basketball team has been to the NCAA Tournament.
As a participant, that is.
While it’s been four-and-a-half decades since Duquesne received a coveted invitation to the Big Dance, it doesn’t mean it hasn’t been at the party. In fact, the Dukes quite often are throwing it.
For the fourth time in the last decade, most recently in 2018, Duquesne is co-hosting NCAA Tournament games as the university and SportsPITTSBURGH welcome first- and second-round games at the 2022 version of March Madness.
First-round games between Ohio State and Loyola Chicago, Villanova and Delaware, Illinois and Chattanooga and Houston and UAB will be held Friday at PPG Paints Arena, with second-round games set for Sunday.
In addition to the Division I men’s tournament, Duquesne also is hosting the Division III women’s basketball championship Thursday and Saturday at its new UPMC Cooper Fieldhouse.
So what’s in it for Duquesne besides a lot of work for vice-president of athletics Dave Harper and his staff?
“I think it goes back to one of our university’s missions, and that’s the health and vibrancy of the community,” said Harper. “Positioning our brand with arguably one of the most prominent championships in sports is fantastic.
“We can play that role, bring in the teams, bring in the visitors, and so, going back to the mission of the university, it’s just a perfect alignment and we enjoy doing it and want to do it as many times as we can.”
Combined, the two championship events are expected to bring in thousands of out-of-town visitors, resulting in an estimated $10.5 million in direct visitor spending, a $2 million increase from when Pittsburgh last hosted the men’s tournament in 2018.
“Major sports events like these NCAA championships will continue to play a large role in our region’s economic recovery,” said SportsPITTSBURGH executive director Jennifer Hawkins.
Perhaps no other industry has been hurt more in the last couple of years than the hospitality industry. Jerad Bachar, president & CEO of VisitPITTSBURGH, said travel in Allegheny County is a $6.5 billion industry in non-covid times, and sports contributes mightily to that total.
“This (NCAA men’s tournament) is a big part of that,” said Bachar. “So we’re excited to get back to this. We’re thrilled.”
For his part, Harper said it’s about more than money.
“When you’re awarded these championships time and time again, it’s a testament to the work that you do, to the sense that you have to commit to the student-athletes, commit to the local organizing committees,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about for us.”
In the meantime, Harper, who is technically the tournament director, has plenty to do to make sure the games come off smoothly this weekend, including being an arbiter when there are conflicts.
“Sometimes there are brands that conflict. The NCAA championships has their (commercial) brands versus the facility’s brands. It’s really making sure at a high level that every detail is there,” he said. “People have a lot of requests, TV times get bumped. A lot of things can happen, and you have to adapt.”
Harper said there are a lot of little details he has to work through that most fans are not aware of.
“When the committee members come into town, we’ll meet with them. There are a number of walkthroughs beforehand, site visits. We’ll do a walkthrough (Thursday) just to make sure everything’s in line,” he said.
So what really makes dealing with all that minutiae worth it in the end?
“When we’re hosting, it proves that Duquesne is committed to the world of Division I men’s basketball. So when we have recruits in, they can see this,” Harper said. “It’s the first time that a lot of recruits have ever been in our building because of covid and everything else. So we’re taking full advantage of that.”
As of Tuesday afternoon, tickets remained for the tournament games, and one has to wonder if that would have been the case if Duquesne, Pitt or Robert Morris had made the tournament instead of combining for a disheartening 25-69 record for the 2021-22 season.
“A lot of times, Pittsburgh gets overlooked as a basketball community. But this weekend is kind of an eye-opener,” Harper said. ”It’s nice that you have three Division I men’s basketball programs in the immediate area, and all of us want to get better.”
Pittsburgh will welcome men’s Division I tournament games again in 2024.Though that doesn’t allow much time for a turnaround, maybe Duquesne won’t just be hosting. They could be dancing.
Paul Guggenheimer is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Paul at 724-226-7706 or [email protected]