PITTSBURGH — Coming down the stretch of the 2019-20 regular season, Duquesne went on the road to beat St. Bonaventure and VCU, with both of those wins snapped noteworthy streaks that were not favoring the Dukes.
They hadn’t won at St. Bonaventure in 11 tries and had never beaten VCU at home or on the road. In between those impressive wins, coach Keith Dambrot’s squad slid past George Mason at PPG Paints Arena. These three consecutive wins seemed to come at the right time for the Dukes.
With one regular-season game remaining at home against Richmond, the Dukes had a shot at cracking the top-four in the Atlantic 10 Conference with an upset win against the second-place Richmond Spiders.
But they didn’t seem to have the same juice that they had over the previous two weeks stretch and lost by 11.
“I just felt like we should have won,” Dambrot said after the loss. “People say, ‘Oh, it’s the end of the year. It’s tired.’ Come on, man, we had a lot to play for. But that’s bitten us all year. We can’t get out of our own way.
“Every time we get close, we do the same thing. At some point, when you beat your head against the wall 14 times, you figure out not to beat your head against the damn wall. We’re a pretty good team. We’ve come a long way. But a championship quality team wins that game tonight.”
They’ve come a long way, indeed, in Dambrot’s third season on The Bluff. They won 11 conference games – most in school history – while finishing tied for fifth – program-best since 2011 — in the A10 after being picked eighth in the preseason poll.
But in a wacky college basketball season thus far, the Dukes are still optimistic about the records that are still out there to break.
Their second season begins on Thursday in Brooklyn, as they will play the winner of No. 11 George Washington and No. 14 Fordham at 8:30 p.m. in the second round of the A10 tournament. A win would mark the Dukes’ first A10 tourney victory since the 2014-15 season.
Getting on a roll and winning a few games this week at the Barclays Center, could make the Dukes postseason even longer. The main goal of every team is to make the NCAA tournament, but the only chance of that happening is for the Dukes to win four games in four days. It’s possible, but a more realistic target is snatching an NIT invite.
The Dukes would at least have to win one game in Brooklyn for any chance of that becoming a possibility, but Dambrot would be all for that opportunity.
“The NIT in a lot of respects is as good a tournament as the NCAA,” Dambrot said Tuesday. “You have a lot of good teams in the NIT; it’s a high-level tournament. Obviously, everybody wants to play in the NCAA. … And it’s hard to get into. In the men’s tournament, there’s only 32 teams; I think there’s 48 in the women.
“So, it’s really, really hard to get into the NIT. Because there’s automatic qualifiers as well, any team that wins the regular season and doesn’t win their tournament gets an automatic bid to the NIT. So, there’s not that many at-large bids.”
The Dukes haven’t made the NIT since 2009 when they lost in the first round to Virginia Tech in double-overtime. Making a tournament like the NIT would undoubtedly be a success for a program that’s going through a revamp stage. It’s no secret of what Dambrot was walking into when he took this coaching job. The idea of even being involved in NCAA tournament talks was utterly foreign to Duquesne basketball. With the ups and downs of this season, Dambrot knows that there are still some more steps before that idea becomes a reality.
“It took me five years to get to the NCAA tournament at Akron, with a better base to work with,” Dambrot added. “We’ve made progress (this season).”
Another angle of postseason play that hasn’t been kind to Duquesne, or any of the teams in the top half of the A10, is the lack of respect they’ve received. Obviously, No. 3 ranked Dayton has received an overwhelming amount of attention, as they have dominated conference play and are led by a consensus top-five NBA draft pick, Obi Toppin. But as it currently stands, no bracketologist” have any other A10 teams receiving at-large bids to the NCAA tournament.
“That’s the unfortunate thing,” Dambrot said. “In the Big Ten, in leagues like that, when they knock each other off, it doesn’t really have any effect on the NCAA tournament. But because our league is so balanced, and we don’t have the reputation of the Big Ten, when Dayton wins every game and like a Rhode Island doesn’t beat them or a St. Louis doesn’t beat them, or a Richmond doesn’t beat them, or VCU goes flat, now we go from a four or five bid league to a league that might only get one team in. That’s unfortunate because our league is really good.”
Other experts agree with Dambrot that the league has more than just one outstanding team. According to Kenpom.com, here’s how the top-five A10 teams rank: Dayton (No. 4), Richmond (No. 46), Saint Louis (No. 62), Rhode Island (No. 66), and Duquesne (No. 95). The three teams behind Dayton will all be desperate for at least a few wins in Brooklyn this week to help buff their resume for when Sunday rolls around.
“Every one of those teams are good enough to win in the tournament, including us,” Dambrot said. “Like we are actually built pretty well because we are big and strong. If you aren’t big enough, the NCAA tournament’s hard to win in.”
March is full of unpredictable outcomes every year. For the Dukes, they are hoping to have a little more juice left in the tank before they are told that they aren’t allowed to play any more games in this record-breaking season.