PITTSBURGH — On a snowy Friday morning, Duquesne Sports Information Director Dave Saba is doing his usual media rounds at a lively Power Center Gym when he stops underneath a side basket.
“Evan, are you free to do an interview,” Saba asked.
The surprised look on Duquesne men’s basketball freshman face followed with several teammates teasing him as if he was in a Comedy Central roast. Yet almost immediately freshman guard Evan Buckley stopped what he was doing and met beside another side basket for the interview.
It has been a year of start and stop for Buckley in terms of seeing the court, which would make it easy for him to get down, but that was certainly not the case for this Ashburn, Va native.
“The main thing I have been told all year is to stick to the grind and put in the time every day,” he said. “Whether things go your way or not, stay true to what you do and believe. I kept everything consistent, played alright and have a good opportunity.”
Early on, Buckley had opportunities on the court, totaling at least eight minutes in four of Duquesne’s first six games.
This included Duquesne’s season-opening contest against Princeton in which Buckley did not score in 13 minutes, but was able to find ways to make contributions.
“You might not know it looking at the stats sheet, but Evan Buckley really helped us,” Duquesne coach Keith Dambrot said. “He didn’t do anything, but sometimes that’s better, because he kept it simple got the ball down in where it belonged and played good defense. That’s what it takes to win basketball games, you have to be selfless.”
That Princeton game is one of three occasions in which Buckley earned a double-figure minutes count.
Perhaps what Dambrot said above was not the greatest endorsement, but what he did say was that by putting Buckley in, it was done with confidence.
As the season wore on, Buckley was mainly on the bench largely playing in the closing minutes of games already decided.
“He was just giving me a try,” said Buckley of his early season playing time. “I came here because Coach D wins. I understood why he stayed with who he stayed with. I got an opportunity and played well.”
Why the sudden change?
Well Duquesne was one of five undefeated teams and with that came national attention, more than the program had received in quite some time.
Part of that attention meant that Duquesne would be scouted more carefully and opponents would gave the Dukes their best shot.
This had uneven results whether it was an early hole, foul trouble or inconsistent play, but more often than not, victories.
Given the nature of these contests, Dambrot went with a smaller rotation and Buckley was not part of those plans.
“When you’re winning, you can understand why you don’t switch things up,” Buckley said. “It’s about building trust with your coach. I’m not sure if he has that much trust in me but you have to build it every time.”
Indeed, Buckley chose Duquesne over George Mason, Richmond and Bucknell, the first two also being Atlantic 10 programs.
Part of Buckley’s being on the bench had a positive impact as he had the chance to see what transpired on both ends of the court and understand what the expectation was, were he to come in.
Truthfully, Buckley may not have needed that much coaching as he has the unenviable task of guarding Sincere Carry every day in practice, which is a learning experience by itself.
“That has a lot to do with how I can guard people in games because I go at him every day and he’s tough to guard,” he said. “That has gotten me better over the year.”
In speaking prior to Duquesne’s contest against St. Bonaventure, Dambrot stated that guarding Carry daily has its pros, but may also have a con.
“I’ve always liked Evan Buckley,” said Dambrot. “He’s a tough kid, I think he’s got a lot of guts and toughness. It’s just been hard to get everybody in and it’s hard to judge practice because he guards Sincere every day, so you can’t tell whether he’s good or not. My gut all along told me he was.”
One of Buckley’s biggest supporters has been Director of Player Development Ashton Gibbs who is always at the ready with a reminder that it is easier to stay ready to come into a game than get ready to enter.
The two workout together every morning and Buckley credits the former Pitt guard for developing him since the summer.
While Buckley waited for another opportunity, Dambrot held his customary postgame press conference at PPG Paints Arena, where his Duquesne team had just enough to defeat La Salle.
Dambrot played seven players and he knew even as far back at halftime that it may cost his team, which it very nearly did.
As if immediately wishing for a mulligan, Dambrot admitted he wrestled with the idea of involving more of the bench and decided the voice in his head was too loud to ignore any longer.
In the past, Dambrot stated it was tough to get everyone playing time, but even if it was to give a player a couple minutes rest, it was worth utilizing the bench.
Buckley did not hear Dambrot’s remarks, but when the former had his number called Feb. 5 at Saint Louis, he tried to make the most of his opportunity.
In the game, Buckley nailed a three-point shot, played 10 minutes and was one of 10 Duquesne players to see the court. Buckley was a +5 on the evening and play did not drop off when he was on the court.
“I told Buckley after the game that you had a really stupid coach because all along I knew you had guts,” Dambrot said.
Indeed Dambrot was true to his word and Buckley again appeared against St. Bonaventure, the team’s lone contest since.
Reflecting on his performance, Buckley was predictably his own harshest critic.
“I guess that was good (scoring), but I missed the other two and I was more mad about that,” he said. “Just playing basketball, I’ve done this my whole life. I just want to take the opportunity and run with it.”
As the season progresses, Buckley has a clear vision of how he wants his freshman campaign to be.
“Every game I’m going to give it all I have and play every game as hard as I can,” said Buckley. “That’s how I am and how I’ll play.”