The 2020 offseason should be an exciting one for Duquesne basketball as the Dukes are fresh off a 21-win season that could have been more until it was cut short before the Atlantic 10 Tournament by the coronavirus pandemic.
After their best season in a decade, Duquesne head coach Keith Dambrot will bring back all five starters from his 2019-20 squad and several role players while also adding a couple highly touted freshman in his incoming recruiting class.
Added to that, the Dukes will be re-opening their newly renovated UPMC Cooper Fieldhouse and will also resume their City Game rivalry with Pitt after a one-year hiatus.
Actually, scratch that last paragraph.
Both of those things were expected to happen this coming season, but now it seems that neither will, due to circumstances outside the control of Dambrot and Duquesne athletic director Dave Harper.
First, the coronavirus shutdown of construction activities stopped work on Duquesne’s basketball arena renovations for two months, and while that work has re-started, it now will not be completed in time for the start of the 2020-21 basketball, and furthermore, might not be ready at any time during the season.
Then, news came out on Thursday that Pitt will not play Duquesne in 2020-21, after promising to do so a year prior and after the Dukes offered to play at Pitt’s Petersen Events Center for no money or guarantee.
So, the Dukes are back to where they were a year ago — without a home and without a marquee opponent on their schedule. But as noted, last year didn’t go all that badly for the Dukes, so they’re looking for a repeat performance in overcoming adversity.
“It’s not ideal, but we got through it last year, we just have to go through it again,” head coach Keith Dambrot said. “You can sit there and try to control the things you can’t control, or you just play the hand you’re dealt.”
Dambrot said that the change in construction timeline happened early enough in the spring that it didn’t overwhelm his schedule plans. Like last season, when they played at PPG Paints Arena and on the campuses of Robert Morris and LaRoche, the Dukes will move around. They’ll also again play additional neutral-site games.
“Once they stopped construction, I kind of figured in my head that we were gonna have problems,” Dambrot told Pittsburgh Sports Now. “So, we kind of went on the same course we did last year, trying to get some neutral games. And then, you know, still play home games, but we’ll just have to do it in a different place.”
Right now, Dambrot is just scheduling games and figuring out where they’ll be played later. There is hope that construction could be finished for Atlantic-10 play, but Harper said it will take some time before they know exactly how much their timeline has been affected.
“I think that’ll be determined probably in the next six to eight weeks, I would guess,” Harper said. “We have parts needed for the project in Montreal and Houston, and we haven’t even heard from the company in Canada. So we’re trying to find an alternate provider there. The supply chain from overseas has been affected. The ability to work a 100 percent normal construction day isn’t there anymore.
“Our priority is getting the building done and done right, and making sure the workers that we’re blessed to have working on the project are protected. PJ Dick, our contractor, has worked hard to abide by the work site remediation processes that have been put in place. Keeping workers healthy and well is a priority throughout this entire process. We went without an on-campus home last year. We know how to do it. Hopefully, we won’t have to do it for a full year, but if we do, we will.”
As far as the Panthers go, not having the local major conference squad on the docket will be a blow to Duquesne’s schedule, though Harper said he had thought for some time that Pitt night not play the game. The Dukes do have another high major opponent this season in Maryland.
It’s not just Pitt that doesn’t want to play the Dukes amongst high major teams. Duquesne being a team on the rise makes them a dangerous opponent, but the Dukes aren’t seen as a prestigious opponent, either.
“Look, Duquesne doesn’t have a huge name, but they know we’re capable of beating them,” Dambrot said. “I’ve coached a long time. So they’ll, go play some more inexperienced guys that haven’t coached as long that are sure wins versus playing us. I could give you the list of teams that we’ve contacted to play and we haven’t had a lot of success.”
That makes it challenging to increase the difficulty level of the schedule, something that Dambrot has endeavored to do in each of his seasons.
“That’s a natural progression,” he said. “I felt like our schedule last year was better than the year before. We didn’t any high-majors in it, but we were kind of victims of Pitt a little bit. We didn’t have them. We thought we were gonna have them.”
Instead, Dambrot has looked to improve his schedule any other way that he can.
“I think Cal Baptist is underrated,” he said. “Their numbers aren’t great but they’re going to be a good team. We think we’re going to get Furman on a neutral site, who is a really good team. We think we’re going to get East Tennessee State. It’s hard. It’s hard to get people to play.”
Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem be a way to short-circuit that process. The only way to become a more-desirable opponent is to consistently win at a pace that belies the level of play, a route taken by teams like Dayton, Gonzaga and Wichita State.
“Winning elevates your profile,” Harper said. “Our NET numbers don’t lie. We were a top 100 NET team last year. We’re trending with all five starters coming back and our projected NET, we’re a heck of a non-conference game for somebody.
“But our cachet is not there yet. So for someone, and especially coaches that are trying to manage and get their program where they want to go and have their program plans fulfil themselves or they may be on the hot seat, a loss at home to Duquesne doesn’t help them.”
Ironically, the biggest impediment to that winning in the near future might be the lack of a home court.
“Not many people have had success out of their building. You look at Robert Morris, it was hard on them, too,” Dambrot said, referencing the two seasons the Colonials spent without a home floor from 2017-19. “The year they got back in their building, they made the NCAA Tournament. … You can ask Andy [Toole] if it’s easy. It’s not.”
Duquesne fans have waited a long time to see their club once again return to prominence. That might be possible this season, but for the entire package to come together, it’s going to require some more patience.