Keith Dambrot has been loud and clear since his opening press conference at Duquesne about his intentions to turn around a program seeking a return to its glory days.
Monday morning he spoke at the team’s annual Media Day about the work the Dukes are putting in to change the program’s perception in year one and the progress the team is making as the season rapidly approaches.
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“This is the hardest I’ve worked any team since my first year at Akron,” Dambrot said of preseason preparations. “I mean long practices, grind practices, so it’s not really the way I like to do it, but it’s a necessity.”
Duquesne returns just five players from last year, including starters Mike Lewis II and Tarin Smith, and will be without the services of five transfers, who must sit out to due to NCAA rules. Depth will be an ongoing issue for the Dukes throughout the season, but Dambrot is not using excuses. The first couple of weeks have featured intense practices albeit at a slower pace as he installs his systems.
“It makes you more better, paying attention to detail, really trying to make sure they understand exactly what we want,” Dambrot said. “We have a fairly complicated offensive system, pretty simple defensively, so it’s hard to get it all in at once.”
The first-year coach emphasized it’s unrealistic for the Dukes to be a complete team offensively come the season opener against St. Francis Brooklyn on Nov. 11, just 19 days away.
“Trying to teach the whole system at once is a little overwhelming for me, because I’m trying to get a team ready for the first game, which could mean anything,” Dambrot said of the first game. “It could mean you’re getting pressed, it could mean you’re playing against 1-3-1 zone, it could be hard man-to-man…it could be a variety of things.”
“So to say we’re going to have everything in where we want to be on game one, that’s a hard deal, but what we have to do is try and get better on a daily basis.”
As with any new changing of the guard, the relationship between the coach and players takes time to develop. Dambrot has employed a balanced approach of tough-love and building confidence in practice. He firmly believes the Dukes are better than most pundits are giving them credit.
“Of the five guys coming back, only one of them has had a really good career here, so I have to be hard on them,” Dambrot said. “But at the same time, I have to make sure they have belief in themselves because they’re better than what people think.”
If Duquesne is to surprise teams in 2017-18, the Dukes must find ways to win close games. They were just 3-8 in games decided by five points or less last year, including losing their final four contests by a total of eight points.
“The key is going to be when the game is 70-68 with three minutes to play, are they going to believe they can win or not?” Dambrot said. “That’s going to be the key to whole thing, because in the past they haven’t.”
Dambrot has set out to the change that mindset, essentially “shocking” the program, by challenging the Dukes in the later stages of practice to be mentally sharp.
“He actually gets on us more at the end of practice than he does at the beginning,” Lewis II said of Dambrot. “So towards the end of practice when we all get tired and fatigued, he makes sure he stays on us, so we understand even though we’re tired, we need to focus harder.”
“We’re going to be in a million close games,” Dambrot said about pushing his players to be mentally tougher. “We don’t have enough pop yet to just blow people out of here.”
The chip Dambrot had on his shoulder at his first press conference is still evident, especially after the Dukes were picked last in the Atlantic 10 preseason coaches’ poll last week.
“I can’t stand the fact we got picked 14th, although we probably should have, it still bothers me,” Dambrot said. “So I come out here everyday with an unbelievable energy because I can’t stand it. And I want to fix it fast, so Duquesne never gets picked 14th again.”
— Duquesne Basketball (@DuqMBB) October 23, 2017