PITTSBURGH — In all three years at Duquesne, Keith Dambrot has talked about his program taking the next step and being championship quality. This week will be the biggest test to see where Duquesne is at.
Having earned its 20th victory of the season, Duquesne is winning games in a timely manner with this week being the last in regular-season play.
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As it sits right now, Duquesne would have the fourth seed in the Atlantic 10 Championship by virtue of the head-to-head tiebreaker with Saint Louis and St. Bonaventure. Duquesne swept the season series against Saint Louis and split meetings against St. Bonaventure, while the other two teams will face off for the first time Saturday.
What would having a double-bye mean?
Well first off, it would allow for Marcus Weathers to rest his ankle a little bit, an ankle which has experienced bumps and bruises throughout Atlantic 10 play but held him out of the second half against St. Bonaventure and briefly placed his status for last Saturday’s contest against George Mason at risk.
Otherwise the team is fairly healthy, but the possibility of not having to play for a week could give Duquesne a unique advantage.
During regular season play, Dambrot has admitted to not being a fan of having a week of between games and teams that get off to slow starts in Atlantic 10 Championship quarterfinal games have had tough look. Just ask top-seeded Dayton which fell to Davidson after time off in the 2017 event at PPG Paints Arena.
Even this season, Duquesne struggled against Marshall and Fordham, while also fading in the second half at Rhode Island, so Dambrot’s concerns certainly have merit.
Taking a step back for a moment, Duquesne has not won an Atlantic 10 Championship contest since the 2014-15 season.
Under Dambrot, Duquesne did not have much offense in year one (the 2017-18 season) and it was one of its worst games of the season. Duquesne did not peak at the right time and Richmond got just about every look imaginable.
Last season, Duquesne lost a high-scoring affair 92-86 to Saint Joseph’s. Duquesne’s defense was not where Dambrot wanted it to be all season and really the Dukes did not come in with as much momentum as it desired dropping its last two regular-season games.
For the first time under Dambrot, Duquesne has not peaked during conference play. Duquesne has played plenty of good games in conference play, namely both Saint Louis games, Davidson and road St. Bonaventure contest.
This season Duquesne has shown an ability to win in big venues with the previously mentioned Saint Louis and St. Bonaventure wins in addition to holding its own at a sold-out UD Arena.
It is no secret that this team plays with a chip on its shoulder, an ideal that starts with Dambrot and carries down to the players, who already came to Duquesne with that mindset.
Weathers has become a breakout player, Michael Hughes is an all-defensive team candidate, Sincere Carry has been a true leader down this stretch run, Tavian Dunn-Martin can make a three-point basket from just about anywhere, Maceo Austin has had a rough time of late, but his game is getting back into form and Lamar Norman Jr has taken to his starting role and shown defensive improvement. Baylee Steele’s game has become more physical in the last month and his staying after practice to work on his game has paid off. The trio of Evan Buckley, Ashton Miller and Austin Rotroff all know and accept their roles, all of whom have made timely baskets and been crucial defenders when in the game.
That solves the where has Duquesne been this season as well as where it is at now, but what about what is to come?
How does that mindset transfer to VCU, the preseason conference favorite, that is now eighth in the standings after some uneven games? Duquesne has to answer that question.
The Siegel Center will be a loud atmosphere whether it is the fans, the pep band fittingly known as The Peppas or even the infamous VCU Havoc defense.
For proof that VCU has had a rougher time of late, its own coach Mike Rhoades had an out-of-character moment over the weekend repeatedly screaming “come on” in an effort to fire the fans up as the Rams were taking control of the game.
Duquesne has been a team that has enjoyed making history to date this season and Tuesday night presents another opportunity as the Dukes are 0-7 against VCU and a win would be important as not only would it prove that the team is making strides in playing its best basketball of the season, but also would secure no worse than the sixth seed at the Atlantic 10 Championship.
Referencing the season to date, Dambrot stated at Monday’s practice that he has gotten Duquesne to this point by being nice and friendly, but now that has changed as both want to reach their end goals.
He does not care if it is dysfunctional, he just wants to win games.
This season, Duquesne has shown an aggression that has not been seen in the last handful of years, but now it will look to impose its will on both sides of the ball for a full 40 minutes.
By no means will this be an easy game but is the first step what Duquesne hopes is a long and rewarding March.
As Dambrot said at practice Monday, “I took the boxing gloves off. It’s time now. We’ve got to go”.