PITTSBURGH — When Keith Dambrot arrived at Duquesne in 2017, he set about trying to revitalize a program whose better days were long behind it.
He assembled a rag-tag group of transfers and overlooked recruits, installed toughness and defensive principles, and has slowly but surely built the Dukes up over three seasons.
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They won 16 games in 2017-18, and 19 games last season. Those are nice marks for the Dukes, and the 35 wins over two seasons was the most for the team since 2011-12.
Fast forward to day, and it’s a tough sell to consider the Dukes a scrappy underdog.
They’re one of the best teams in the A-10 with a 5-0 start to conference play and a 13-2 overall record. They’re receiving national attention through votes in the AP Top 25.
Perhaps most notably, the gambling public has taken heed to what the Dukes are all about. They entered play against Fordham last week as 17.5-point favorites, even without having a real home-court advantage to speak of.
It’s relatively easy to get up for shocking the world, for making a name for one’s self and one’s team. But the pressures of being a team that’s expected to win are slightly different.
Yes, Duquesne was dealing with the shocking news of the death of guard Maceo Austin’s sister when the Dukes stumbled to an overtime win against the Rams, falling well short of their projected margin of victory.
Hopefully, that won’t be something the team has to deal with again.
But the idea of being a big favorite in a game they’re supposed to win will probably come up again. The Dukes are underdogs heading into Wednesday night’s game at Rhode Island (12-5, 4-1 in A10), but even on the road, they’ll probably be expected to come out with a win at UMass on Saturday (7-11, 1-4 in A10.)
But they’re not worried about suddenly becoming the hunted instead of the hunters.
“We expected this to happen,” forward Mike Hughes said. “When you expect something to happen, you play like it and you act like it every day.”
“For the most part, over the years, my teams have won games they’re supposed to win,” Dambrot said at Duquesne’s Power Center after practice last week while literally knocking on wood. “Not saying every one, but I try to get them to play every game like it’s the championship game.”
That mindset is going to be required game-in and game-out, because favorites or not, last week’s tight win over Fordham proves that there are no nights off in the Atlantic 10 this season. Even the bottom of the table teams can take advantage of an off night.
“Maybe there’s two-and-a-half, three teams that are clearly better and then you can put everybody in a hat,” Dambrot said. “Even the bottom teams, there isn’t much difference between the bottom teams and the rest on a given night .”
But the underdog mentality is deeply instilled in this group, from the head coach all the way down. Nearly player at Duquesne feels that they were overlooked or mistreated by someone in the process. Their chance to prove it is between the lines on game nights.
“We still feel like we’re the underdogs in every game,” guard Tavian Dunn-Martin said. “That’s why we have a chip on our shoulder. We try to go out and play every game like it’s our last.”