PITTSBURGH — Fresh off engineering the seventh-best single-season improvement in school history in his first year at the helm, Duquesne head coach Keith Dambrot isn’t looking at 2018 like a typical second season.
“I think, first and foremost, it’s like a “second” first year,” Dambrot said. “Because when you really analyze it, we only have two guys that played, and then if you add Kellon [Taylor], who we don’t get right away [because of football], so we have three, really. So, we just have to treat it like another first year.”
After some offseason conditioning work in the summer and a couple light shootarounds earlier in the week, the new-look Dukes hit the court for their first real practice together Wednesday morning inside the A.J. Palumbo Center. All seven incoming freshmen — not including 6-foot-11 James Ellis, who will sit out the 2018-19 season — and sophomore guard Eric Williams Jr. participated in the first session, while Ellis and the upperclassmen took part in the second session.
After an hour-long session of drills — ranging from defense, ball movement, complex screen-and-rolls and even the plain-old-fashioned “get in a group and don’t stop shooting until you make 80 3-pointers” — any first-year players who started the session wondering whether Dambrot might ease the new guys into things quickly found the answer to be a resounding “no.”
“When he’s on you, it means he’s pushing you and he knows you can be the best. And that’s something that we always talk about,” 6-foot-11 freshman forward Gavin Bizeau said. “Once he gets on the court, he’s not going to sugarcoat anything. He’s going to push you to be the very best you can be.”
Amidst the controlled chaos of the practice, Dambrot preached to his players the importance of playing with non-stop communication, relentless defensive pressure and a tireless work ethic. The veteran coach is making it clear early that if you want to crack the lineup, he isn’t tolerating anything less than all-out effort.
“You have to figure out who is really a winner,” Dambrot said. “And it’s not necessarily the five best guys or the seven best guys, but it might be the best nine guys that play together and how they play together.”
Bizeau and the other freshmen are finding out firsthand that Dambrot’s practices are an entirely different experience than what they were used to in high school, but none of them are shying away from the challenge.
“After a practice like that, I feel pretty tired, but it’s all just a mental thing,” 6-foot-9 freshman forward Amari Kelly said. “I just push myself every day, and we have a great treatment room, so I take advantage of that.”
The team’s leading scorers from a year ago, junior guard Mike Lewis II and Williams Jr., are virtual locks to play a ton of minutes again this year. Aside from the two former Atlantic-10 All-Rookie Team members, though, only 6-foot-5 forward Marcus Weathers is sure to see action, Dambrot said. But even he doesn’t even know what position and how many minutes the Miami (Ohio) transfer is going to play, and every other spot on the roster is up for the taking.
That’s why Bizeau, Kelly and the other freshmen don’t have time for a transition period as they get acclimated to the college game and lifestyle. If they want to be the contributors that Dambrot needs and thinks they can be, they have no choice but to adjust on the fly.
“The biggest question mark is really that center spot,” Dambrot said. “I feel like at the other spots we have enough alternatives, and I think at the center spot we have alternatives, but they’re all pretty young. They’re all young alternatives. Until we can consistently throw it in there and score, we’re never going to be as good as we want to be.”
The only big man with college experience on the team is Michael Hughes, who sat out last season after following Dambrot to Duquesne as a transfer from Akron in 2017. But Hughes’ in-game experience is minimal, and he’s coming off an injury that Dambrot said has kept him from getting into proper game shape. That means he might have to rely on one of the true freshmen to step into a starting role at power forward or center — or both.
The Dukes have several candidates to fill those spots if needed, including 6-foot-11 Dylan Swingle, 6-foot-10 Austin Rotroff and Kelly. What separates Bizeau, though, is his ability to step out on the perimeter and play as a small forward as well.
“[Bizeau] can go anywhere down from the three spot to playing the five spot and spreading out, because he’s such a good shooter,” Dambrot said. “That creates a different kind of a center than when you play Mike Hughes or one of the other ones like Dylan Swingle.”
Still, Dambrot’s constant emphasis on defense gives Kelly confidence in his ability to contribute to the team in his first year on campus.
“That’s the reason why he recruited me, because the high school I came from [Meadowcreek] was very strong defensively,” Kelly said. “He told me he likes that about me, and he really wants me to be a defensive anchor for this team.”
Dambrot has called Kelly “the most physically ready to play at this level” among the freshmen in the 2018 class, a compliment the Long Island, New York, native has used as fuel to make sure he proves his coach right. Not only is Kelly prepared to step into a starting role if needed — he’s planning for it.
“It felt good to hear that and just gave me motivation to keep going hard and keep getting better every day so I can become the starter,” Kelly said. “That’s my ultimate goal as well, to become a starter as a freshman. And Rookie of the Year in the A-10, that’s what I want to accomplish.”