PITTSBURGH, Pa. – Duquesne’s A-10 opening win over perennial power Dayton on Saturday surely turned heads around the league.
The encore sent a message the Dukes are not to be taken lightly going forward. They followed up their win over the Flyers with a resounding 69-52 dismantling of George Washington Wednesday night at the Palumbo Center.
Duquesne clamped down defensively from the 13:55 mark of the second half. The Colonials had trimmed the Dukes’ lead to four at 44-40, but George Washington managed only four made baskets the rest of the way, missing nine of its final 13 shots. Duquesne went on a 19-5 run and never looked back, collecting their 11th win and matching the program’s best start since the 2008-09 NIT team (11-4).
Picked last in the league’s preseason coaches’ poll, the Dukes sit atop the standings after two games, tied with reigning champ Rhode Island. With 16 games remaining, a lot can change and most likely will, but one thing is certain: Duquesne is not finishing last.
The Dukes held GW to its lowest point total (52) in the series since 1981 // #GoDukes
— Duquesne Basketball (@DuqMBB) January 4, 2018
“All I’ve done is manage them,” head coach Keith Dambrot said. “I’ve shown them the way, but they’ve done it themselves. They made the necessary changes to become a formidable team.”
We’ve used the space before to illustrate how Dambrot is committed to building a program predicated on defense, but the Dukes’ transformation in the last month has far exceeded expectations. Duquesne has morphed into a defensive monster under its first-year head coach.
The turning point came on the heels of a three-game losing streak. Since allowing 78 and 76 points in back-to-back losses to Cornell and Pitt, respectively, the Dukes have held every opponent but one—Southern Illinois—to 65 or fewer points. They’ve won nine of ten games and limited teams to 59 points per game over than span. To put that in perspective, only six teams in the country allow fewer than 60 points a night.
“I think at the beginning we kind of didn’t play defense and we didn’t know what coach Dambrot wanted,” freshman Eric Williams Jr. said of the team’s improved play. “But I think that we got it and know we just have to play hard. Defense is going to win us games, and I think we didn’t get that much at the beginning.”
Dambrot downplayed the notion players “bought in” after the losing streak and credited it more to the players grasping his defensive philosophy.
“I think they didn’t have great knowledge,” Dambrot said. “I don’t think it was a buy-in, it was they just weren’t good enough yet. Just learning how we want to play, what we have to do to win, caring about every play every day.”
“I think they finally figured out in their brain what they have to do to be successful.”
The Dukes do several things well, mostly notably, defending the three. A year ago, Duquesne allowed opposing teams to shoot 36 percent from the behind the arc. That number has plunged to 28 percent under Dambrot, sixth-best in the country and tops in the conference. In two A-10 games, the Dukes have yielded just eight made threes.
Things you never thought you’d tweet: Duquesne is 2-0 in Atlantic 10. Kudos to Keith Dambrot, one of the more underrated hires of last spring.
— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) January 4, 2018
Duquesne also rebounds well. The Dukes have been outrebounded in just two contests this year—VMI and Robert Morris—and average a +4.1 margin on the glass. They also limit turnovers, ranking third in the league (11.1). Add it up, and Dambrot has the makings of a winner much sooner than anticipated.
“I kept telling them, ‘Look, you’re better than you think you are,’” Dambrot said of his team. “I’ve coached a lot of different types of teams, and you can tell these guys are getting better.”
Duquesne gets a new test Saturday when it travels to Fordham for its first true road game of the season. The Dukes are the last Division I team to play such a game. They won in the Bronx a year ago and will surely be favored once again. The Rams are 6-8 on the season and rank among the worst in the league in scoring (65.1).
Cold shooting night often plague teams on the road, especially in the Atlantic 10 were nothing is given. The Dukes are now equipped to offset such performances. As Rene Castro-Caneddy said in the postgame Wendesday night, “defense will carry over.”