PITTSBURGH — As the Duquesne men’s basketball team broke the huddle in a preseason practice, its coach Keith Dambrot placed all of his cards on the table.
In his third season, Dambrot believes all of the pieces in place for this team to succeed.
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“You hear people talk about the process and building your team,” he said. “What we did at first was we got as much talent as we could in here because we felt we were talent short. Then we didn’t feel we were championship quality culture wise, so we’ve cleaned our culture up now. So we feel like we’ve got enough talent. Now our point of emphasis is we have enough guys who care about winning. That’s kind of where we are at now. We built our foundation and chipped away at it a little bit. Now we’re trying to become championship quality.”
Indeed Duquesne is bringing its most complete team to the court this season which will be needed in an Atlantic 10 conference which promises to be a significantly more competitive.
With all of that being said, it has not been the easiest two years for Dambrot.
He has had to rebuild this program, make those fans who left return and had to quickly learn the ins and outs of the Atlantic 10 among many challenges.
“It’s the hardest job I’ve ever had,” said Dambrot. “I’ve never had an easy job. I’ve never worked any harder and at 60 years-old, that tests you every day. I’ve worked really hard to try and make Duquesne relevant again. You can say taking your lumps, I took some, but if you take what Duquesne has done in the past I haven’t taken as many lumps as most of those guys. We did it the way it should be done and really it was the only way we could turn around the program like that.”
A DEFENSIVE PROGNOSIS
One thing that was expected to significantly improve under Dambrot was the team’s defense. In previous years, Duquesne was more known for its offensive prowess and wanted to outscore the opposition.
In year one under Dambrot, the defense showed some signs, perhaps out of necessity because the offensive firepower just was not there. It is understandable as to why as Dambrot had to recruit the returning players all over again and in a short turnaround convince others that coming to Duquesne, they would be apart of something special.
Last year, a lot of the puzzle pieces started to fall into place, but the defense took a step back. A lot of players who sat out last season returned and some injuries stunted Duquesne’s progress, which forced Dambrot to make some tweaks.
“That’s probably the most disappointing thing since I have been here, that I am so defensive oriented, and we haven’t been good defensively,” he said. “My theory on defense is that there’s only one way to cure that and if you don’t guard you have to come out of the game. Now we have enough people where I can do that. We did that the first year but last year when we had those injuries, we were a little shorthanded, so I couldn’t do everything I wanted to do.”
Dambrot believes that part of the reason for less attention being paid to defense as there is no reward for playing that side of the ball growing up. He tries to stress that in the pro level, most everyone has offensive ability but the same cannot be said about playing defense.
It appears that Duquesne is improved on the defensive end, a sentiment graduate transfer center Baylee Steele supports.
“Defensively we have a chance to be really good,” said Steele. “We have a lot of length. I expect to see us at the top of the league in defense. Last year our defensive numbers weren’t very good but we will have a lot of improvements.”
Dambrot is a bit more cautious in how he views the defense, though he understands that if he truly has the pieces to perform, that the defense needs to execute on a much more consistent basis.
“I have this saying ‘every play, every day’,” Dambrot said. “Until we get there, we will never be as good as we seek to be. Simple as that. Ironically there are two teams ranked in the top 25 in our league in VCU and Davidson and we played two good games against them last year. We’re not very far away, but we are far away because to be consistently good, you have to have a certain mindset, maturity and toughness. We became a competitive team but not a championship-quality team, so we have to take the next step.”
While juggling what probably resembled an endless grocery list, Dambrot has had to make sure his team fully buys in and that any distractions are quickly snuffed out.
In the past there have been many transfers, player conflicts and in a couple of instances players missed time in a game whether it was a half or a full game.
Though Dambrot states that this group is not perfect, overall the group listens. Ultimately, he views this Duquesne squad as better people and that it is his job to make them better people, which in turn makes them better teammates.
“I think leadership is a lost art among millennials,” he said. “You have to teach them how to be leaders. You have to teach them how to give sugar and then give them a little spice. You have to hold them accountable to be able to call each other out. I read an article about Anthony Davis and LeBron saying they were good enough friends that they can tell each other when they are not doing what they are supposed to do. That’s what we have to do.”
From a coaching perspective, there definitely is a balance on how to handle a player. Dambrot believes you have to love them and massage them but ultimately you have to get on them.
“I try to treat them right, but I also try to tell them the truth and be direct,” said Dambrot. “I don’t know any other way, I’ll quit before I tell people something I don’t believe.”
Steele believes this team has the right makeup and was built to win. He believes that the days of someone having an off night and it putting Duquesne in a tight spot are over.
Instead, players are holding each other accountable more often, the chemistry is improved and by playing through different rotations, everyone is starting to recognize each other’s strengths.
“Our leaders are stepping up,” said Steele. “All of us are getting in the gym like crazy. This team is one of the hardest-working teams I have ever been a part of. There’s guys here who get shots up over an hour before practice, after practice too and late night too. It’s a good thing to see.”