NEW YORK — As Duquesne men’s basketball coach Keith Dambrot was wrapping up his print media availability during Thursday’s Atlantic 10 Men’s Basketball Media Day, the slightest of smiles formed when describing the contrast between setting goals but not being satisfied with reaching said accomplishments.
In a poll publicly revealed Thursday morning, Duquesne placed 11th of 14 Atlantic 10 teams, something which Dambrot in his second season on the Bluff certainly was not satisfied.
“With all due respect to the league and the great coaches in this league, I didn’t come to Duquesne to be 14th or 11th. I would have stayed at Akron if I thought I couldn’t be better than 14th or 11th,” he said. “I came to Duquesne to try and win championships. That may sound arrogant or stupid because the last nine coaches at Duquesne have been fired. Either I am the dumbest human being in the world or I’m naïve or I think I can get it done.”
Though preseason polls are relatively meaningless and rarely completely accurate, Duquesne certainly plans on using the list as motivation.
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A NEW LOOK
If you ask Dambrot for a lineup right now, he is not going to provide a straight answer and that is because he truly does not know.
With so many new bodies — the Dukes will dress five transfers that sat out in 2017-18 and have seven freshmen — the issue remains finding playing time for as many players as possible which leads to understanding roles and playing together.
Dambrot was quick to reference winning plays but also brought up losing plays.
Last season in Las Vegas, Duquesne was up four points against Southern Illinois at the Las Vegas Classic and Tarin Smith elected for a flashy alley oop dunk, which Eric Williams, Jr. violently missed.
Dambrot shook his head as the media timeout came seconds later. He knew this was a losing play and spiraled into a 74-64 setback.
“The missed dunk was a bad play,” he said at the time. “I don’t know what that was but it’s just a losing play. That’s coaching. You can’t dunk it, you just have to lay the ball in.”
It is plays like that Dambrot is looking to prevent. Inevitably when those plays do occur, he will be ready.
“You can’t take a bad shot, you don’t make the extra pass, if you don’t guard on every possession, those are losing plays,” said Dambrot. “I think what those transfers give us is the depth to allow me to coach them so they don’t make losing plays. Last year if a guy made a losing play, sometimes I didn’t have anyone else to put in and I couldn’t hold them to the highest standard I normally hold them to. We have to manage people like a pro team and get them to play. We have better talent, it’s just playing better.”
Something else that will test Duquesne is its schedule, especially early in the non-conference schedule.
Though five transfers return to the court, this is still a very young team which is still learning to properly gel with each other.
“You play William & Mary and normally you would say Duquesne beats William & Mary and I agree with that, but you are talking about a system team that is a lot like Richmond which is difficult for a first game,” Dambrot said. “Then you have UIC and Radford who are picked to win their leagues. I would rather have them a little bit down, maybe eighth, ninth or 10th games. That’s just the way it works out, we just have to get our guys ready to play.”
Though it may be slower moving at first, Dambrot looks at the big picture and believes that success is attainable this year which would bode well for the program moving forward.
“Next year at this time if we have a good season, we’re going to be much more settled than we are now,” said Dambrot. “We have to win those games if we want to win a good team.”
COMINGS AND GOINGS
One topic that was brought up at Thursday’s media day involved Tydus Verhoeven’s transfer from Duquesne to UTEP.
Verhoeven was a defensive force for Duquesne, especially when it came to blocks, though he had some inconsistencies on the offensive side.
Dambrot seems rather high on redshirt sophomore Marcus Weather playing the four spot, which is where Verhoeven played last season and the two certainly would have battled for playing time.
“I was surprised because he had a pretty good year overall,” Dambrot said. “Tydus didn’t score in 11 games which is an issue when you are at the power forward spot. He did an unbelievable job blocking shots and defensively he’s very good. Kids are funny, they want more. He felt like we needed to play him on the perimeter and we didn’t feel like he was ready. You just never know what goes through kids minds.”
While Verhoeven’s transfer seemed to surprise some outside the program, Dambrot raised more of an eyebrow with Tarin Smith’s departure to UConn.
Smith settled into a sixth man role which by all accounts he accepted and brought energy off the bench. Dambrot is looking for something similar this season.
“We kind of resurrected him and turned into a pretty good three-point shooter and he had a pretty good year but again that is the nature of the business these days, transfers are happening,” said Dambrot.
It should also be noted that Nicholas Kratholm (Longwood) and Marko Krivacevic (IUP) also are no longer with the program.
Dambrot had no such transfers at Akron, so the experience as a whole is new to him, but was why he over-recruited.
What Duquesne does return is the duo of junior guard Mike Lewis and sophomore guard Eric Williams Jr.
Lewis II was praised by his coach as a high-quality person who cares a lot about basketball and has constantly has the desire to win. Dambrot did say though that he was looking for Lewis to be more efficient with both his defense and passing.
Williams Jr was recognized on the Atlantic 10 Preseason All-Conference Second Team and there is the belief that he can be as good as he desires to be. Dambrot cites maturity and that he has to understand the responsibility of being a great player.
Kellon Taylor will return once football season is complete, and came off a successful sophomore season.
It is quite possible that two freshmen guards start for Duquesne in Sincere Carry and Brandon Wade. Carry was a later signing after previously signing with West Liberty after injury concerns earlier in his high school career caused no D-I scholarships to be offered and Dambrot considers him one of the best freshmen he has coached in terms of toughness and ballhandling. Wade he stated was just as good.
Dambrot also expects forward Austin Rotroff to receive minutes and believes the potential is there for him to be a really good player when he gains weight. Amari Kelly also figures to have opportunities.
None of that includes Tavian Dunn-Martin, Frankie Hughes, Mike Hughes and Leonard Randall II.
Dunn-Martin has been able to shoot lights out and is a good defender, Frankie Hughes has talent that Dambrot can use on the court, Mike Hughes is furthest along among the posts given he has been in college basketball for two years and Randall II has a grasp as to who he is as a player on the court.
“They’re going to play and bridge the gap for us,” Dambrot said of the quartet.
ODDS AND ENDS
Duquesne’s height has been often talked about both on and off campus and when asked about it, Dambrot was quick to offer two reasons.
“I’ve talked to a lot of people and two of the thoughts that have come to me is if you can be bigger than them, you don’t have to beat them at their own game,” he said. “The second thought was to have better depth than them. That I believe was what Ron Everhart did at Duquesne, he tried to beat you with 9 or 10 as opposed to seven. It’s been a bit of a slow process because big people take longer to develop, so we may not get to that totally this year but next year we will have them all developed.”
It also is a fact that Dambrot had to over-recruit and started so by going the transfer route. Ideally, he admits he would prefer to start with freshmen, but these were the cards he was dealt.
This all goes back to Dambrot’s belief in his team and why the progress he has made to date is the start of this journey of not just contending in the Atlantic 10, but succeeding in it.
“I have to get better players than the rest of the league and I feel I have a good school, a good administration and a good city with a great job market, so I should be able to get great players,” said Dambrot. “What we haven’t done is win so we have to do that to get the next level of players. That’s what it comes down to.”