PITTSBURGH — In the past, Duquesne coach Keith Dambrot could tell you a thing or two about having a college basketball program consistently a contender in league play. In his last coaching stint at his alma mater, the University of Akron, Dambrot and the Zips competed in the Mid-American Conference (MAC) championship game six of his final eight seasons and won 21 or more games in his last 12 seasons that he was the head man.
Dambrot’s Akron squads made three NCAA tournaments and two NIT appearances in his 13 years before leaving after the 2017 season.
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The 61-year old wanted a new challenge. So, he left the place he called home for the majority of his life and decided to turn around another program that had a special place in his heart. He took over as Duquesne’s 17th head coach in March of 2017 with the hopes of turning the program around to where it once was when his father Sid Dambrot played for the Dukes from 1952-54 and boasted a No. 1 ranking in the country.
Since Keith’s father and that 1952 team made an Elite Eight run, the Dukes have only made the NCAA tournament three times since, in 1969, 71 and 77. They’ve also only received one NIT appearance since 1994, which came in 2009.
So, with the long-awaited rebirth of the program, Dambrot wanted to take a step up from the MAC to the Atlantic-10 conference and try to bring a consistent basketball program to the city of Pittsburgh and Duquense University.
He’s now in his third season on the Bluff, and he’s certainly making strides in the right direction, but like any college basketball program, it can be a daunting task to be able to be consistently consistent.
Duquesne has surpassed its preseason A-10 ranking in each of its first two seasons under Dambrot. In 2017-18 they were picked to finish last and ended up tied for 10th. In 2018-19, they were picked 11th and ended up tied for sixth. And this season with four conference games remaining, they are currently tied for fifth place, after being picked to finish eighth at the seasons start.
Sitting at 18-8 and 8-6 in conference play, Dambrot and the Dukes are off to the program’s best start through 26 games since 1980-81.
But if you have watched them throughout A-10 play, they’ve been right on the cusp of being a team that should probably be closer to having 10 league wins at this point. Dambrot has called his team “consistently inconsistent” numerous times in the past month or two.
You could place the blame for that on many different reasons. It could be because of them not playing a true home game this entire season, because of the renovations being done to their arena. Or because of a number of their younger guys having to play more than 30 minutes per game because of the Dukes’ slim bench. Or maybe it’s just the simple fact that they are a group that’s playing for a program that’s not used to winning at a high level.
Dambrot chimed in on the toll that these several different hurdles have affected him this year:
“In fairness to our guys, no excuses, this is the hardest thing that I’ve ever been through in my life,” Dambrot said. “Look, I’ve been at a school where there was one building, no gym, and played at the YMCA, and it wasn’t as hard as this. Because we knew it going in. Once you have good facilities, good locker rooms, showers, it’s hard to go the other direction. But we’ve done the best that we can with it, but it’s still hard as heck, man. You’re just never in a routine. And it’s such a long year, that when you’re not in your routine, and you don’t win a game or two, it’s even harder. So, my job is to make sure I don’t let any of those outside factors come into play, and we just keep plugging along.”
The Dukes have done just that all season long. After getting off to a 10-0 start, teams came after them once conference play rolled around. They’ve taken their share of punches, but for the most have jumped right back up and battled back.
And the latter argument could be attributed to Dambrot as well. The A-10 conference is a definite step up in composition from the MAC, and that is even more evident this season. It’s a conference that’s deep, talented and filled with programs and coaches that have storied history throughout.
Dayton – currently ranked No. 4 in the country — holds a three-game lead on second-place Rhode Island for first place in the conference. These two teams were bot projected to finish in the top two in the conference. The preseason No. 1 and No. 2 teams (VCU and Davidson) are currently eighth and tied for fifth in the conference standings, respectively. Duquesne already has beaten Davidson and will play VCU on March 3rd.
The Dukes played both Dayton and Rhode Island well for the first 20 minutes of action – leading in both games at the break — before running out of juice in both second halves in tough road environments.
“We’ve shown that we can play with the best teams in the league,” Dambrot said. “We just have to become a little bit more of the same all the time.”
And with not being “the same” all of the time, it has come with the results of having an up and down season. As it has gotten deeper into A-10 play, it has only gotten more difficult for a youthful Duquesne team that has had some issues adapting to the different environments and the situations that have been handed to them.
“This stuff gets tough, it’s tough,” Dambrot said. Like it’s a tough deal when it’s Feb. 24, 25, and you’ve been practicing for a long time, and you have frustrations. You know, you have to have good character to survive it, and if you don’t, it shows.”
Dambrot will be the first one to tell you that it’s hard to stay up at the top of the standings in a league like the A-10. He’s followed Duquesne and this conference from afar for years and years, and even though it hasn’t been close to that upper echelon, he’s aware of what it takes to get there. But it won’t be an easy task.
“We’re trying to build a program here,” Dambrot said. “VCU is 7-7, and Davidson’s 8-6, like do you know how long those programs have been good? St. Louis is another good example. That’s the crazy thing. We are trying to get above that, and (those teams) are struggling to get above that.”
What’s the secret recipe, you might ask?
“It’s so fragile,” Dambrot added about being a contender. “It’s about group dynamics; it’s about getting the right group. Use Shaka (Smart). … Shaka worked for me (three seasons as an assistant at Akron), right? He won because he had a group that worked for him at VCU, and he hasn’t been able to get that same type of group dynamics (at Texas), for whatever reason.
“You have to know what kind of guys are going to be good for you, and then you have to find those guys. And sometimes it’s harder than it appears because you don’t coach them every day. You don’t know what they have inside of them, or what’s inside their brain, or what can distract them. You don’t know if at some point they are going to stay motivated, do they love basketball? They may love it now, but three years from now, they may not love it.”
There’s more to recruiting than seeing a kid who might be 16 years old and averaging 25 points per game in high school, and you recruit him heavily. Two years later, when he steps foot on your campus, he doesn’t have the same drive for the game as he once had, or he doesn’t want to work as hard on and off the court and deal with the everyday demands of being a Division-1 student-athlete.
“What makes this different than running a business, is that we’re relying on 18-19-year olds to win and lose games. Think about with our own kids. … Like some of our own kids have made some poor decisions at times. So, that’s the trick in the whole thing. Getting the right people.”
But even with the hardships that Dambrot and his team have had to withstand this season, he’s all for the character that his players have shown each day.
“Things change so rapidly,” Dambrot added. “Like we lost a game, then we go to St. Louis and win. Now — coming off two straight losses – if we go to St. Bonaventure (on Wednesday) and win, things will change again.”
It seems like that mindset will continue to be the case with Dambrot in charge of the Dukes basketball program. Things are eventually going to change more and more often, for the better.