PITTSBURGH, Pa. – Duquesne’s basketball season ended Friday night in the quarterfinals of the A-10 tournament.
It capped a rough closing stretch to the 2017-18 campaign for the Dukes; they lost 10 of their final 12 games after starting the year 14-6.
But for the first time in awhile there’s a sense of hope on the Bluff. Even the most critical Duquesne fan would have a hard time summoning up reasons to be unsatisfied with Keith Dambrot’s first season.
The Dukes’ final record of 16-16 fails to paint the bigger picture. Outside of three or four games, they gave everyone in the A-10 a challenge with a limited roster. They lacked a low-post scoring presence. They received hardly any offensive production from the four spot. A significant amount of minutes went to two freshmen. For all their deficiencies, they hardly seemed overmatched, a testament to their new coach.
Picked to finish last in the league, the Dukes spent a majority of the conference slate at or near the top of the league standings. It wasn’t until after all the tie-breakers and the late season slide did the Dukes finish 11th.
Duquesne took Rhode Island, the league’s regular season champ, to the buzzer on the road. Twice, it had Saint Bonaventure—another widely regarded NCAA tourney team—on the ropes but couldn’t finish the job. Double-digits leads against VCU and Davidson failed to hold up. The Dukes rallied from 16 down against Richmond to force overtime back in January. One thing was certain, Duquesne wasn’t going to get punked on anymore.
Dambrot emphasized time and time again about building winning habits. The coaching staff pushed the players in a manner they’ve never been pushed. Repeated mistakes on the defensive end earned time on the bench. Players were tracked for making “winning” or “championship” plays. The message was clear: you can’t expect to win without the preparation.
Following a home loss to Davidson in late February, Dambrot reaffirmed his plan to turn around the program. While he has never fully divulged his strategy, the premise loosely centers on finding better players.
Duquesne will look vastly different next year. Dambrot will be introducing 10 new players to the fold, including a heralded five-man recruiting class that features four players 6-foot-9 or taller. The five transfers who sat out this season—Tavian Dunn-Martin, Frankie Hughes, Michael Hughes, Craig Randall II, and Marcus Weathers—are expected to step in and contribute immediately.
***A quick side note, Dambrot initially allowed the transfers to practice with this year’s squad, but it was apparent right away who the better five was. It became counter-productive, almost demoralizing, and Dambrot didn’t want to mess with his team’s fragile psyche so he prohibited the transfers from practicing with the starters anymore. He eventually worked them back in later in the season, but it was a small peep of what’s to come.***
The nucleus of Mike Lewis II, Tarin Smith, Eric Williams Jr., Tydus Verhoeven, and Kellon Taylor return as well.
Duquesne fans will want to closely monitor any offseason reports regarding Williams Jr. and Verhoeven. The former established himself as one of the two or three best rookies in the league. The latter battled inconsistency yet showed glimpses of becoming an elite rim protector—he led the A-10 in blocks as a freshman.
For all his shooting struggles, Lewis II still averaged 14 points a game and hit 89 three-pointers, fourth-most in the league. Smith embraced his role as the first guy off the bench and averaged 12 points a night while earning A-10 Sixth Man of the Year honors.
With only 13 scholarships available, it will be interesting to see how they are distributed among 14 players–Taylor is attending school on a football scholarship. It would not be surprising if one or two of the freshmen redshirt. It’s only speculation at this point but shouldn’t be ruled out.
The talent will be there. It’s up to Duquesne’s 59-year old coach to put it altogether. Dambrot has 429 career victories and averaged 23 wins in 13 seasons at Akron. There’s little doubt he will.
While the season may have just ended, Dukes’ fans are already gearing up for next year. Hope will do that to you.