PITTSBURGH — In the days leading up to Saturday’s season-opening tilt for the Duquesne men’s basketball team against William & Mary, both coach Keith Dambrot and athletic director Dave Harper could not help but admit that there was an unsure nature as to an expectation from this year’s squad.
“I have coached a long time and he has seen a lot of games and we really didn’t know what to expect and who would play when the lights turned on,” Dambrot said.
While plenty was not known, that did not stop 2,534 interested fans from coming to the A.J. Palumbo Center to see what the team would look like this season and the reaction was a rather impressed one.
Fans were loud for much of the game, something that was not the case for most of last season.
Still, in the 84-70 Duquesne victory, Dambrot had a confession to make. Despite nearly a month of preparation, he considered the game’s outcome 50-50.
“I thought it was a 50/50 game going in, just based on experience and newness,” said Dambrot. “We spent a lot of time preparing, just trying to guard that Princeton action. I thought it was a tough matchup. You look at how many points they scored last year and how many big games they’ve been in. I was scared if the game got close they were going to play through the big guy and that would bother. That stretch in the second half really turned the game around.”
— Duquesne Basketball (@DuqMBB) November 11, 2018
It is no secret that many have had a tough time figuring out what to make of Duquesne for a variety of reasons, however Dambrot still has not deduced what this team’s identity will be, though he does not consider that a bad thing.
“I’m searching and discovering,” he said. “Are we an inside-out team, ball screen and let [freshman guard] Sincere [Carry] go team or run it up quick and shoot the three team? I don’t know yet. I like to know what we are, but in some ways it’s fun, we may be good at all, we may not. We’ll find out quickly.”
Carry’s steadiness helps guide team
It is rare in an opening statement, that freshmen are praised for how they handled themselves in their first game, but that is example what Dambrot did, and for good reason.
“Our two freshmen in particular, Austin Rotroff and Sincere Carry, performed well and Brandon Wade played better than his numbers,” Dambrot said. “He is a great filler player because he is a passer. I think the more ballhandling, passing and shooting you have, you can be a good team.”
Rotroff scored 17 points and was a physical post presence recording seven rebounds and added a block.
Carry meanwhile scored seven points but more importantly added nine assists to no turnovers while also contributed two steals in 29 minutes.
The nine assists Carry compiled tied a freshman record Derrick Colter set Mar. 6, 2013 against Charlotte.
Three of Carry’s assists were to Rotroff, all of which were three-point baskets and each pass appeared to be easier than it truly was.
A big problem with last year’s team was that it did not record many assists, especially when compared to made baskets and also there were high turnover games which plagued Duquesne.
In Saturday night’s effort, Duquesne followed Carry’s lead with 19 assists on 32 made baskets, 11 steals and had nine turnovers.
Duquesne also forced a disciplined William & Mary team into 16 turnovers.
Duquesne led the entire first half from start to finish and led by as many as 12 points, in the opening 20 minutes, but some defensive lapses saw the Dukes carry a three-point lead going into the locker room.
In the opening minutes of the second half, the Tribe were able to take a two-point lead after Matt Milon drained a jumper after a Duquesne turnover.
With Duquesne having seven of its nine players making their debut with the team, the easy thing to do would be to panic, after all it could be argued that has happened in recent years.
Though last year may not have been so much panic as much as having less players to use, with those options getting tired, there still was a four-minute stretch in the second half which players and Dambrot alike specifically mentioned was a problem spot.
Still, Duquesne lost several close games last year and Dambrot was expecting more “teeth-pulling contests” ahead for his team.
Given William & Mary’s experience, it would have been easy to pack it in after, several teams before had, instead Duquesne was able to go on a 28-6 scoring run which brought its lead to 20 points.
Eric Williams Jr. who scored 17 points in 33 minutes, was on the floor during the entirety of this scoring run and explained
Something else that is worth noting about this scoring run was that it was done with an almost completely different five on the floor.
Williams Jr. was joined by Rotroff, Wade, Tavian Dunn-Martin and Frankie Hughes when Duquesne was up four and the move certainly paid off.
Little sign of last year
Within the opening six minutes, it was clear that this Duquesne team is much different to its predecessor under Dambrot.
Duquesne was able to effectively use a nine-man rotation during this early stretch and by game’s end all of them scored.
In this game, Duquesne truly played like a team. Everyone was creating shots for each other and even in the final minute up 16 points, redshirt sophomore forward Marcus Weathers took a charge and everyone down the bench applauded just as if the game was tied.
The offense last year appeared timid on some occasions although some of that was due to Williams Jr. and/or an injured Mike Lewis II either being double teamed or closely guarded, there just was not enough firepower to overcome that, especially as conference season wound down.
Both Lewis II and Williams Jr stated in separate interviews that they felt some teammates packed it in and some of that may have been frustration from the lack of personal and team results.
Even something such as the near line change which created the separation which won this game would certainly not have happened last year and several players had to play complete 40-minute games or close to it.
This year it is almost as if Duquesne has too many options.
On that Duquesne bench were a freshmen trio of Gavin Bizeau, Amari Kelly and Lamar Norman Jr. who Dambrot said were just a tick away from the nine that saw time Saturday.
Dambrot considers Kelly the most effective freshman post player and Bizeau is able to make his shot with consistency.
Since media day, Dambrot has spoken about Norman Jr. with more detail and it is clear that the Grand Rapids, Mich. native has seen an improvement in play. It may be part effort on his end but also more of an opening after Leonard Randall’s transfer, but either way, it is clear that Dambrot sees an improvement in Norman Jr’s play.
While a 12-man rotation was certainly possible Saturday, it was not to be, though it shows just how deep Duquesne can go and also allows Dambrot to substitute a player out if they do something which does not help the team.
As far as other redshirt players, Dambrot always thought highly of Dunn-Martin who was limited to 10 minutes a game at Akron because of other guard talent ahead of him. Dunn-Martin had nine points, all on threes but also showcased a passing ability with three assists and no turnovers. Dambrot also has been high on Dunn-Martin’s defensive ability.
At this time last year, not only was Mike Hughes a redshirt, but he also had an injury he was recovering from as both knees required six screws. It certainly was hard to tell in his 19 minutes as he was all over the floor with 13 points, seven rebounds and three steals.
This guy has been EVERYWHERE pic.twitter.com/ylqxeP1Q0X
— A10 Talk (@A10Talk) November 10, 2018
Hughes’s dunk was one which created the loudest Palumbo Center ovation of the night and one which appeared to be a turnover as he lost the handle as he attempted to create dribble penetration by going behind his back to beat a defender that was just beyond the three-point line.
The dunk and foul in the act, caused everyone to smile and the bench rose with everyone encouraging the fans to make noise.
#21 Mike Hughes taking control from the other side of the court. pic.twitter.com/kjKFFTjOhN
— Duquesne Basketball (@DuqMBB) November 10, 2018
It was clear how much the game meant to him and it also did for Frankie Hughes, though for different reasons.
Dambrot stated that Hughes was 0-for-15 from the field in two scrimmages, and his two three-point baskets certainly helped.
Frankie Hughes transferred from Missouri and Dambrot stated he came with the most acclaim though in some respects, his transition has been difficult, but those baskets may help validate his progression and add to his confidence.
Talking about practice?
While Dambrot was in the mood for confessions, he offered one more, that his team had an awful practice Thursday.
Last year, Dambrot had troubles early on in the season having practices coming up against so many games with such few bodies that he worried about tiring his team out too early.
This year, he conceded that the team may have been tired of practicing.
Though at times the secret scrimmages did not show it, this is a team which is very confident in its offensive ability and this game, in which it shot 52.5% from the field and 46.2% from three certainly proved as much.
Perhaps it is a young team that has high belief and just wants to showcase that against another opponent or just a team plain old sick and tired of facing each other, the latter of which is quite common.
For now, Dambrot has to find the balance of building confidence versus building a higher standard.
Saturday was an important step towards building that confidence, having several players who have not seen the court in a regular season game for over 600 days and also won in a way that certainly excited fans.