PITTSBURGH — It would be easy to forgive Duquesne if the men’s basketball team had to wipe the sleep off its eyes after having its first morning practice in nearly two weeks.
Duquesne coach Keith Dambrot prefers to have these earlier practices, but upon leaving for the Bahamas, did not have that luxury for a week and then enjoyed a four-day break before returning to the court Monday.
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“It’s good and it’s bad,” Dambrot said. “Being gone seven days and then having four days off we got out of that routine of practicing in the morning which now becomes a difficult thing because we are back to school practicing in the morning and we’ve had rough practices because of that. We can’t make excuses, we have to grind through when we don’t feel great because really that’s what this game is about.”
Despite this, Duquesne as of this writing is one of 20 remaining undefeated teams in the country, though prior to a session in the weight room Dambrot reminded his team that it is capable of winning the remaining six non-conference games, but also has the ability to lose them.
Duquesne certainly will not complain about the rest after winning the Junkanoo Jam in The Bahamas as it helped prepare the Dukes for what the Atlantic 10 Championships will resemble. Dambrot did state that the talent level does not match what the A-10 provides but that the week as a whole serves as a dress rehearsal for March.
As it stands, Duquesne is off to its best start since the 2007-08 season and will face VMI Wednesday at LaRoche University’s Kerr Fitness Center. A win would mark the first time Duquesne has been 7-0 in 40 years.
“I told the guys at this point teams either get better, stay the same or get worse,” said Dambrot. “We need to be better if we want to become what we need to become. A lot of it is getting used to the grind which is our weakest area, we just need to be more consistent and I think part of that is inconsistency in practice.”
Dambrot spoke at length in an exclusive interview which will be summarized with key points below:
THE DEFENSE WILL BE TESTED
It is no secret that Duquesne is much more defensively sound this season. As of Monday morning, Duquesne ranked fifth nationally in three-point defense (23.8%) and 12th in scoring defense (57.2 ppg). In six games, only Indiana State has eclipsed the 70-point mark.
“If you play good defense you have a chance to win every single game, I think the Steelers are a good example of that,” Dambrot said. “You just have to be functional on offense and then if you become good on offense, then you play great defense and you can win a lot of games. We’ve shown that we can defend the three-point line well, the analytics show we defend the basket well, we have to improve the mid-range defense which if you have to have one of the three be a little bit porous, that is the best one to have.”
Despite entering play with a 3-6 overall record, VMI has averaged 74.4 points per game and has won three of its last four contests.
“VMI will be the best offensive team we’ve played thus far which people will find really hard to believe,” said Dambrot. “We’ll get tested there.”
VMI is 0-3 in true road contests this year with East Carolina and UNC Greensboro among the setbacks.
WE NEED TO WORK ON IT
Dambrot consistently states in press conference or other interviews that his team needs to work on something and though it may be interpreted as a reflection on the players, this also includes the staff as a whole.
When Dambrot assesses film regardless of final outcome he also is looking for those areas of improvement so that both the staff and team can address the shortcomings.
“You have to improve individually to get better as a team and you have to improve as team to improve as a unit,” he said. “You have to put your time in individually but that’s not all. This is not tennis or golf, this is a team sport, so you have to improve on the team concepts as well. Only the great teams really play high-level basketball every single night. You’re not going to magically turn it on and off, that is something I keep stressing. We have enough physical ability, it comes down to mental engagement.”
Dambrot continuously called last year’s team ‘the comeback kids’ as they had to come back from multiple double-digit deficits. This season, Duquesne has had more variety in how it has won games and who has stepped up.
“In the last couple of years we’ve shown we play at our best when our back is up against the wall, which isn’t necessarily great because you can’t do that too many times,” said Dambrot. “Eventually you’ll get bit. We’re trying to be more consistent. If you look at the analytics, we are one of the most inconsistent teams in the country and that’s not good. We just have to be more mature and not put ourselves in a bad position.”
This year, Dambrot believes that Duquesne needs to get to the free throw line more often. Through six games, Duquesne is shooting 76.8% from the free throw line which certainly is an improvement over last season’s 69.4% mark. In fact, no Duquesne starter is shooting below 71.4% albeit in a small sample size.
Though Duquesne has been more clinical at the line, its 99 attempts are seven more than its opponents.
“We have to get to the free throw line more, which we need to do a better job of,” Dambrot said. “My gut kind of leads me those directions anyways but I look at the numbers just to verify. The key is free-throw percentage in the last three minutes. That will be key in a close game and our sample size isn’t there yet so we have to wait and see.”
Under Dambrot, Duquesne is 32-3 when leading with five minutes remaining, providing further importance on making free throws.
AMARI KELLY INJURY UPDATE
Amari Kelly has been out of action since suffering a season-ending ACL injury March 6 against Saint Louis. Prior to the season starting, Kelly would do drills on the side during practices, but Monday he was a participant in practice, shooting with the team and keeping up with his teammates.
Kelly was not a full presence in the 90-plus minute practice, but stayed afterwards to continue to work on drills.
“We’ll get him to the doctor this next week,” Dambrot said. “What has to happen is the tests on his leg strength have to come out good for him to get cleared. We’re still a little early for nine months. Then it will be another month until he’s not a baby cat, where’s comfortable and Rotroff is showing that right now.”
On the topic of Rotroff, it was clear he was more explosive that what Duquesne fans saw a couple of weeks ago and he worked through some drills as his body draws closer full strength.
DON’T EXPECT A LINEUP CHANGE
In today’s day and age it is quite popular to find something wrong, something to complain about even when things are going well. That is no different for Duquesne.
Anytime a player in the starting lineup does not excel in consecutive games, fans can be quick to point the finger, but Dambrot does not pay much attention to that.
“Throughout my career the starting lineup never mattered, we’ve had more sixth men of the year, maybe than any coach in the country,” he said. “the problem is young people today don’t like that. Right now one of our best players comes off the bench and I give him a lot of credit because he started every game at Utah Valley last season. Baylee’s (Steele) played as good as anybody we’ve had so far, but he never says a word about it because he trusts me and trusts the program. Now we have to develop that amongst other guys.”
When given a follow-up question, Dambrot answered that the line of questioning referred to fan’s concerns about Tavian Dunn-Martin’s start to the season, which the third-year Duquesne coach acknowledged as a “lack of production” but immediately cast any doubt away believing that Dunn-Martin, last season’s Atlantic 10 Sixth Man of the Year who averages 5.8 points per game on 23.3% shooting, will bounce back.
“I have faith that he is a good player,” said Dambrot. “By the same token, Lamar has played very well too, probably better than Tavian to this point. Again we’re trying to win games and it doesn’t matter who starts and who finishes. My gut is that Tavian will play better, Lamar will play better, Ashton will play better and Maceo will play better. Then if that happens then we have a really good thing.”
Dambrot was asked one more question on the topic in which he admitted that Duquesne is a team which normally runs its starting five together through practice has not tested many other combinations.
“We have pretty much played our same groups for the most part,” Dambrot said. “It does not seem to affect us when we play Mike Hughes and Baylee together. They play well and give you a dynamic that the other group does not have. The hardest thing for me to balance is not having Rotroff and Baylee in together. I need to have one guy that laterally can move out and guard. Mike and Marcus start and they are two guys who can guard people on the perimeter.”