WASHINGTON — On many levels, it was a successful 2017-18 for the Duquesne men’s basketball team.
The Dukes, who wrapped things up with a second-round exit in the Atlantic 10 Tournament with an 81-68 loss to Richmond on Thursday, finished the year 16-16 and in 10th place in the A10.
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That’s a good bit from where the Dukes were projected to finish, which was dead last in the 14-team circuit. They won more games and more conference games than they did the season before, and they broke in two new freshmen in Tydus Verhoeven and Eric Williams, Jr. that should play big minutes for the Dukes down the road.
But this isn’t just a story of a young team building for the future. Duquesne is going to be a completely different team in 2018-19, with 10 newcomers, include five transfers that sat out this year in Tavian Dunn-Martin (Akron), Frankie Hughes (Missouri), Michael Hughes (Akron), Craig Randall II (Memphis) and Marcus Weathers (Miami-Ohio).
They’ll be joined by five freshmen in Gavin Bizeau, Amari Kelly, Austin Rotroff, Dylan Swingle and Brandon Wade. That’s 10 new faces, and from the sounds of things, they’re going to dominate the playing time in 2018-19.
“We’re going to have a brand-new team next year obviously, with 10 new guys” head coach Keith Dambrot said. “So we’re going to have a few more blocks, hopefully, to build our building.”
Senior guard Rene Castro-Caneddy won’t be one of those returning. He spent four years at Duquesne after transferring from Butler, but he feels like he did the most growing this last year under Dambrot and is excited for the future at Duquesne.
“Through my beginning years, I struggled,” he said. “I think I was very blessed to get this coaching staff. I think we laid a foundation. We had an improvement from three to seven (A10) wins, but I definitely think for the future, definitely going to be top in the league.
“So I think I tried to lay a foundation. I’m just blessed to meet this coaching staff because they really helped me have a good senior year.”
Dambrot’s first run through the A10 could be considered a success by some, but it won’t be by him. The first-year head coach was displeased with his team’s performance down the stretch and first-round exit, but agreed that there were positive takeaways from the season.
“I’ve learned the league a bit,” he said “This year, I really didn’t know anything. I sat at the wrong bench at Rhode Island. I was on the wrong side of the floor. This is all new for me. Even at 60 years old, you feel like you’re a first-timer at times.”
For freshman Eric Williams, Jr., the lesson was playing the game on one of its biggest stages. Capital One Arena is home to the Washington Wizards. It seats almost 20,000 people and even less than one-third full, presents a completely different atmosphere than the Palumbo Center or any of the A10’s other buildings.
Williams started the game with four turnovers, a foul and no points on two shots in seven minutes. That’s not the start he or the team needed.
“When Eric Williams has struggled this year, we haven’t been very good,” Dambrot said. “This is all new for him, too. That’s his first conference tournament, and his first four minutes weren’t very good.”
At the first TV timeout, sophomore Mike Lewis II grabbed Williams and had some advice for the youngster.
“You can’t get down on yourself,” Lewis said. “We’ve shown all year that a lead in our league doesn’t mean anything. … I told him to keep shooting, be yourself and let it go.”
Lewis thought the big stage might have taken the youngster off his game a bit.
“Coming into a building like this, you watch guys play on TV here all the time and now you’re in it,” Lewis said. “For a young guy, it’s like, ‘Wow, I’m here.’ But calm down, because we still have a game to play.”
Here’s video of Castro-Caneddy and Dambrot at Capitol One Arena in Washington, D.C.