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Vukovcan: Capel and Dambrot Are Gifts To Basketball Fans in Pittsburgh

Vukovcan: Capel and Dambrot Are Gifts To Basketball Fans in Pittsburgh

Many families will exchange Christmas gifts on Tuesday, but for the college basketball fans of Pittsburgh, particularly those that root for either Pitt or Duquesne, the biggest presents arrived many months ago.

Instead of receiving coal again, Panthers and Dukes fans received the gift of having Jeff Capel and Keith Dambrot coach their basketball programs, and the early returns have been nothing but positive.

Dambrot took over the more difficult assignment, because it isn’t easy raising something from the dead. In case you’ve forgotten, here’s a reminder of how bad of a basketball program Duquesne has been and what Dambrot inherited.

Since 1972, the Dukes have had only one 20-win season. Their last NCAA Tournament appearance was in 1977, when John Cinicola was their head coach. They made it that year by winning the Atlantic 10 tournament despite going 15-15 and 3-7 in conference play in their first year in the league. They’ve finished above .500 in A-10 play just five times. That’s hard to believe, but it’s true.

Last year, in his first season with the Dukes, Dambrot’s team finished 16-16, which wasn’t bad considering the limited roster he inherited. This season, they’ve gotten off to a 9-3 start and have a shot at hitting that 20-win plateau.

Keith Dambrot December 19, 2018 — David Hague/PSN

I think it’s a safe bet that before long, we’ll be talking about Dambrot being the first Duquesne coach since Red Manning in 1970-72 to have back-to-back 20 win seasons.

When’s the last time a Duquesne coach has had a problem of too many talented players and not being able to get them playing time? That’s an issue that they’re faced with.

Consider that Mike Lewis II, the teams leading scorer the last two years, has only gotten more than twenty minutes of playing time twice this season. That’s not a knock on Lewis but a sign of how the talent level has increased at Duquesne.

After getting hired, Dambrot recruited transfers Mike Hughes, Tavian Dunn-Martin, Frankie Hughes and Marcus Weathers into the programs and all are making positive contributions.

They’ve also done a solid job recruiting high school seniors. The two best examples of that are sophomore forward Eric Williams, Jr. and freshman point guard Sincere Carry, both of whom are destined to become all-A-10 players.

The Duquesne staff also has brought in Austin Rotroff, Brandon Wade, Amari Kelly, Lamar Norman, Jr., Gavin Bizeau, Dylan Swingle and Maceo Austin, all of whom are highly skilled and should be major contributors down the road.

Want two other reasons to be excited about the future of Duquesne basketball?

1) Next year, they should be adding 6-foot-11 center James Ellis from Westinghouse, who might be as talented as any player currently on the roster. 2) The entire roster is scheduled to return next season.

Here’s an early prediction for next season: Duquesne will break the 43-year drought and qualify for the NCAA tournament. Dambrot will now be able to recruit players on winning and also playing in a newly renovated basketball arena. The future is bright on The Bluff.

While the drought for Pitt hasn’t been 43 years, it probably feels that way after not being in “The Big Dance” for the last two years. Although they didn’t always live up to expectations, making the NCAA Tournament was almost automatic under Jamie Dixon.

Getting there this year probably isn’t realistic, but Jeff Capel appears to have Pitt’s program back on track and it’s now only a matter of time. The Panthers haven’t even started ACC action and they’ve already surpassed their eight-win total of last season.

The most exciting thing is the talent that Capel is attempting to recruit to Oakland. Despite only having a couple months to recruit after getting the job, Capel spotted and then got Xavier Johnson, Trey McGowens and Au’Diese Toney to sign.

We’ve already seen the talent that those three players have and it appears that Johnson is a future star.

Xavier Johnson (1) November 6, 2018 — David Hague/PSN

If Capel was able to get that type of talent in only a few months, I can only imagine what things could be like in a couple years when he actually has time to develop relationships with future top-end recruits.

Fans always wondered if and when Dixon would take Pitt to that “next level” but in in order to do that, you need to be able to bring in four-star, five-star and potential NBA prospects. That wasn’t Dixon’s strong suit, but that’s how Capel developed his reputation as one of the top recruiters in the country at Duke.

Getting elite talent to come to Duke is one thing. Getting that same talent to Pitt is another challenge, but I believe if a coach can evaluate talent, he’ll be successful. Keep in mind, Johnson was a three-star prospect and wasn’t considered a major get at the time for Capel. How’s he looking in charge of the Pitt offense?

How cool would it be if the city of Pittsburgh had two perennial NCAA caliber tournament teams to watch?

A few years ago, that would’ve been laughed at, but thanks to the tremendous hires of Capel and Dambrot, it now might not be a matter of if, but when.

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