When junior guard Mike Lewis II transferred from Duquesne at the semester break, the Dukes were left without a single scholarship upperclassman to close out the 2018-19 season.
Of course, even when they had one, the Dukes’ youth and inexperience was likely to be a limiting factor throughout this season.
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During the team’s final practice before their Atlantic-10 home opener Wednesday night against Fordham, Duquesne head coach Keith Dambrot spent a ton of time working on the minutiae of attacking Fordham’s hybrid man-zone defense and the way the Dukes will need to attack it.
But at the end of the session, he went straight to the big picture.
“You won’t win unless you change a little bit,” he said. “We’ve got to be better emotionally. We’ve got to put the work in. … It’s all about culture.”
That’s a message that Dambrot has been preaching since the Dukes first arrived on campus, and while his persistence and dedication to the topic certainly shows his passion and how important he knows it is to his team, Dambrot can’t be the only one waging that war.
Any coach will tell you that the best teams and teams with championship aspirations need most of the leadership and accountability to come from within, and not from the coaching staff.
Dambrot said after practice on Tuesday that he’s been able to find some of that in this year’s team in freshman point guard Sincere Carry and junior forward Kellon Taylor.
“Kellon has respect of the group and he’s smart and he’s objective, so he’s a guy that can echo (my message),” Dambrot said. “Sincere is a guy. He’s earned his stripes so far this season.”
Taylor, who counts as a walk-on for the basketball team because of his football scholarship, just joined the team after the gridiron Dukes’ historic season ended in the second round of the FCS playoffs.
He’s played in just six games with the Dukes, and though he did practice with them over the summer, that’s not exactly an easy position to be thrust into and then become one of the leaders of the group.
“In order to do it, you’ve got to come to practice every day and practice hard every day and be emotionally engaged every day,” Dambrot said.
Taylor’s football mentality and toughness certainly has allowed him to do that. He also has a better understanding of exactly what Dambrot is looking for as one of two returners that saw playing time in 2017-18.
“Me being pretty much the oldest guy on the team, I just try to share some of my knowledge and things like that,” Taylor said. “I try to do that every day. We are a young group, but I think we’re staring to become more mature as the season comes along.”
Dambrot is a firebrand that takes on practice with as much energy as he expects to see out of his players. Taylor has found some success with a more mellow approach.
“He’s an intense guy. He yells. He hoots, he hollers, he jumps in your face,” Taylor said. “I just kind of walk over and tell them in a calm way what he really means. … I try to articulate it in a different way.”
It’s almost as if Taylor is the good cop to Dambrot’s bad cop. “You could say that,” Taylor said with a smile. “It works for us.”
Taylor said that there are still “good days and bad days” with the focus level group, but he feels that they’ve positioned themselves well to make an impact in A-10 play.
“We come in ready to go,” he said. “We compete. As long as you have a team that’s willing to compete, it really doesn’t matter how old you are.”
Center Mike Hughes is still not 100 percent. Dambrot said Hughes is “beat up” and may be limited in minutes against Fordham on Wednesday. Look for Austin Rotroff to get extra minutes if Hughes is unable to participate fully. … Frankie Hughes should get his third straight start at shooting guard. … Fordham has won three straight games at Palumbo Center, with Dambrot calling 2018’s loss one of his team’s worst efforts of that season.