PITTSBURGH — First-year Duquesne head coach Keith Dambrot has had two jobs this season as he tries to right the ship after just eight winning seasons and no NCAA Tournament appearances in the last 40 years.
The first job has been to connect with the players that he’s inherited from the previous coaching staff, integrate freshmen and transfers and create a new culture of Duquesne basketball.
The second has been to re-engage his team with fans, students and boosters in a meaningful way that will provide the type of atmosphere and support that he will need in order to break through and take the program to heights beyond its recent past.
Job one seems to be going well as Dambrot has the Dukes sitting at 9-4 after the non-conference schedule with significant momentum coming from a just-snapped seven-game winning streak.
The second part of the job remains a work in progress, as the Dukes didn’t draw more than 1,213 fans to any of the six home games during their seven-game win streak and their season high at the 4,400-seat Palumbo Center is just 1,833.
“We’ve got a long way to go to build excitement and to put some people in the stands, but I believe that once we start to win at a high level of play, people will come,” Dambrot said. “I think our guys have tried their hardest to be good. They’ve worked hard every single minute we’ve had them. So eventually, the people of Pittsburgh will recognize that and come to the game.”
Another part of the equation, and one that relates to job one for Dambrot, is a focus on defense. If there is a stereotype for the kind of team that Pittsburgh fans can relate to in any sport, it’s one that works hard and plays sound defense.
The Dukes don’t have much choice in the matter. With a field goal percentage of 41.2 on the season — 304th in the country — to put it kindly, they won’t win many games with offense alone. There’s a pretty clear relationship between the number of points allowed and the final outcome for the Dukes this season. When they give up fewer than 62 points, they’re unbeaten. In between 62 and 72, they’re still a respectable 3-1. When they allow more than 72 points, the Dukes are 0-3.
The clarity of the outcomes has made it easy for the holdovers from the previous staff’s offense-oriented attack to instead focus on the defensive side of the ball.
“We actually sat down with each other yesterday after practice and talked,” sophomore guard Mike Lewis II said. “It was letting the freshmen know that the intensity is about to rise, the competition is about to rise, everything is about to rise. … We understand that we have to play defense if we want to be in games, regardless of who we’re playing.”
With more attention paid to the conference games that lay ahead, the Dukes have the opportunity to recapture some fans and draw some attention to the program by having their non-conference success translate to the second half of the season.
“We have to do our share,” Dambrot said. “We have to win at a championship level or no one’s coming. You can’t blame them for that. There’s too much on television, there’s too many other events to go to, to come watch mediocrity.”