BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Duquesne men’s basketball coach Keith Dambrot did not take too long to embrace that once again his team would be playing an underdog role this season.
When Dambrot first took the Duquesne coaching position, his team was picked to finish 14th, dead last in the Atlantic 10 and exceeded expectations placing 10th. Last season, Duquesne was picked 11th and finished sixth.
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As the A-10-issued press release was handed to all in attendance of the conference’s media day Thursday morning at the Barclays Center, Duquesne was listed with a number eight beside its name.
“We just have to play with a chip on our shoulder and earn our respect,” he matter-of-factly said. “If we continue to plug, we will finish higher than they think.”
Dambrot knows that the Atlantic 10 is expecting to have three teams in the NCAA Tournament this year, but given how deep the conference is this season, squeezing a fourth or fifth bid is not entirely out of the question.
Still, the conference is deep and Duquesne is starting the season in a bit of a hole as currently nine players are healthy, which makes practices challenging.
“We’ve had some injury issues,” Dambrot said. “We still don’t have the two ACL guys (Amari Kelly and Austin Rotroff) and Frankie Hughes out for the year, so we are practicing with eight or nine guys a day. The good thing about that is they get a lot of time in practice, the bad thing is sometimes we are playing a little dead on our feet which is coasting and not being able to substitute. All nine of those guys are going to play, so they are all playing for something.”
For Duquesne, there will be some help coming as Rotroff is expected to be back in around two weeks time.
Currently, Duquesne has three post players for two spots in Mike Hughes, Baylee Steele and Marcus Weathers.
Both Hughes and Weathers were starters a season ago and Steele has been highly regarded as a transfer.
Hughes has been battling his share of injuries this offseason as he had a stress fracture in his foot that kept him out of playing in the Bahamas and off the court for four weeks. The injury has resurfaced in the fall.
Given Hughes had some injuries last season as well, it will be a balancing act making sure he can help Duquesne win games, but also be on the court as much as possible.
“We have to do a good job of monitoring him,” Dambrot said. “He has to do a good job taking care of himself off the court, getting enough sleep. He’s a big key for us, a guy who can take another big jump. We’ve been trying to get him in the best condition and it is hard when he has been out at times.”
Duquesne has had its share of issues in practice due to the lack of bodies, where the team cannot go all out just because it can ill afford another injury.
Given Duquesne’s current lack of post depth, both Maceo Austin and Ashton Miller are being shifted to having some post responsibilities, something Dambrot stated he did not like, though there was little choice given the circumstances. This shift does show a certain confidence in the backcourt.
Perhaps some of the media’s trepidation in not placing Duquesne higher in the standings was due to Eric Williams’ transfer.
When he was on Williams was a successful two-way player who could both score and rebound.
Dambrot did credit Williams for this but believes that he has a replacement in mind for the position.
“I’m not worried about that position at all because I feel like Maceo Austin will be one of the best freshmen in this league,” said Dambrot. “He was a high-level recruit and just a really good all-around player. He may not have the numbers Eric has but he can do so much. To me, he is the ultimate winner.”
As far as Miller is concerned, Dambrot is a believer in him as well and believes he will have a good-sized role on this team.
“Ashton’s my kind of guy, an under-recruited guy that a lot of people missed,” Dambrot said. “He has good ability, good versatility and diversity in his game. He’s a great listener, he’s in good condition and he’s very smart. He is a guy who has typically done well for me and he’s been a pleasant surprise so far.”
There is no clear indication that a starting five has been decided. It is clear two of the three post options will get the nod, and Sincere Carry also seems safe to start.
That means between one of the posts, Austin, Tavian Dunn-Martin and Lamar Norman Jr, two of these players will not start, but will have to keep the level of play steady on the bench.
By no means is playing on the bench a death sentence in Dambrot’s scheme seeing as Duquesne’s first player of the bench has won Sixth Man of the Year in each of his first two seasons.
“If you look at the history of my programs we always have a sixth man of the year or someone of that caliber going all the way back to Akron,” Dambrot said. “Obviously one of those big guys is not going to start and then one or two of those guards are not going to start so they have to fight for their minutes and fight for their roles. It is a continuous fight throughout the year. I am a believer that you have to earn what you get.”
As far as Dunn-Martin and Norman are concerned, Dambrot placed them together in both answers relating to them. He believes they can score, potentially at will but need to be improved on the defensive end. Still, he expects both to help Duquesne.
Carry was named to the Atlantic 10 Preseason All-Conference Third Team and is at full health. Dambrot has made sure to balance improving his weaknesses such as three-point shooting with polishing strengths which include his passing and defensive ability.
As Dambrot prepared to end his interview session, he described the difference between being a championship-quality team and being a team trying to be one.
Duquesne is not quite at that level as per the third-year coach, as the belief in that ability has not shone through at all times, but once it is there, the possibilities are endless.
“We’ve made improvements but haven’t shown we are championship quality yet so we’re going to have to beat some people,” he said. “When they believe that you will see a total change in mindset.”