PITTSBURGH –– After three seasons, Duquesne men’s basketball coach Keith Dambrot finally has the program trending in the direction that he wants, championship quality.
“I feel like we have a pretty good dynamic with seven or eight returning players who have proven they can play in this league and then some talented young guys that unfortunately have not had the full college experience both as students and as athletes and we are trying to catch them up and get them ready for college basketball,” Dambrot said.
Some early season adversity has occurred with a positive test within the program which shut practice down for two weeks and a false positive which halted Duquesne’s momentum for an additional couple of days.
Duquesne has a good mix of returning players and new that gives the Dukes the depth that it has desired. All five starters return led by both senior forward Marcus Weathers and junior guard Sincere Carry who each received Preseason All-Conference Team honors.
Not to be outdone is senior center Michael Hughes who as a post ranked atop the conference in blocks and top-10 in steals, though he was not placed on the preseason all-defensive team.
Speaking on Weathers and Hughes, Dambrot flashed back to both wins against Saint Louis a season ago. Saint Louis, he said, was and still is one of the most physical teams in the country, but Duquesne won both of those contests because it punched back and was the more physical team, something he specifically credited the aforementioned senior posts for setting the tone.
Regarding Carry, Dambrot feels another jump is there if he can continue to work hard on the defensive end and improve his three-point shooting, both of which he has done during the offseason. Carry has never been shy to involve his teammates but has also shown the ability to take a game over as well.
Now the work will be getting these newcomers: Tyson Acuff, Chad Baker, Mike Bekelja, Noah Buono, Jaylen Cole-Williams, Andre Harris, Mounir Hima, Toby Okani and Jett Roesing some experience, which has been hard to come by thus far.
Duquesne feels it has taken the necessary steps to become a winner, but now the work begins as the Dukes seek its first NCAA Tournament berth since 1977.
“We’ve made the progress we’ve had to make, we’ve put ourselves in the position to be a contender, now we have to mature emotionally and be a championship-quality team,” said Dambrot.
HOW TO HANDLE NON-CONFERENCE START
It is unknown how many final copies of Duquesne’s non-conference schedule Dambrot attempted to make that ultimately have become sloppy copies due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but when the dust settled, the Dukes made the most of a challenging situation.
Duquesne will face its toughest non-conference schedule in the Dambrot era, even though he hopes it is far from a finished product.
Not only will Duquesne open its season with five games in 10 days and as participants in two separate bubble-based tournaments, but it will do so against teams picked to place atop or close to it in its respective conferences with players who have received acclaim.
Remembering that Duquesne will be in two separate bubbles playing in consecutive tournaments, there is certainly a mixture of emotions.
“It is exciting but nerve wracking at the same time,” Michael Hughes said. “It is a similar type of process as the NBA, just being excluded from the world, that’s basically what a bubble is. With me, I am asthmatic so it will be controlling positive tests if there are any. At the same time you have to trust the professionals and that they will keep everything safe.”
Because of Duquesne’s COVID-19 situations, the newcomers have not seen the court nearly as much as Dambrot would like and he estimates of the 30 practices the Dukes are able to have, only 20 will occur.
Practices have been tricky in and of itself as Dambrot has likened them to pro-style minicamps. There are less breakdown drills and more of a cram-session of sorts. Dambrot feels that Duquesne has to prepare itself for what it could see but really control what it knows. It is unknown how much Duquesne will be able to practice when there is such a grueling stretch both physical and mental to start the season, so an emphasis will be placed both on physical conditioning and cover as many things as possible so at least if something occurs, the team will at least have seen it.
Given this fact, Duquesne will almost certainly rely on its returning players to lead the way early on both on the court and as mentors as well.
“I feel kind of badly for those young players because we have some talented young players who will be cheated with a shorter non-conference schedule and just their ability to develop in practice has been hindered,” he said. “We’re going to have to ride our older guys until they are in optimum college basketball position. A lot of responsibility is with our returners and making sure they are in condition to play five games in 10 days, which I’m not sure anyone is.”
The newcomers will have a shorter-than-usual non-conference schedule meaning Duquesne will be counting on players such as Maceo Austin who Dambrot considers a key player, Tavian Dunn-Martin, Lamar Norman Jr and a now-healthy Austin Rotroff to produce early on. Amari Kelly will be available as well, but Dambrot compares his health to that of Rotroff at the start of last season.
Given these returners, Dambrot was confident that given how battle tested the collective group was that it could weather the early-season challenge.
Those newcomers, will still be important early as part of Duquesne’s depth as they could give the returners breaks and it will be important for their development to see time on the court.
“All of them come to work every day and the biggest thing I’ve seen is when it comes to live action or scrimmages they are not backing down,” said Hughes of the newcomers. “When the tough gets going, they are going to keep it together and they fight hard. These guys are ready to go to war when adversity hits.”
DEFENSE AND THREES
These are the two areas that Duquesne may need to improve in the most and it certainly is aware of that.
Defensively, Duquesne showed an increased ability at stopping the ball and using active hands to create more transition opportunities that lead to quick baskets.
“Consistency is the biggest thing, it was not there every game and that is the most important thing for our team,” Marcus Weathers said. “I think that is our identity to be really good defensively. Individually I feel that I can do a lot more defensively, especially with guarding multiple positions so it is all effort with me. I’m just trying to build my effort and my habits to be better so we are more linked in together.”
Hughes agreed with his teammates’ thoughts and despite his defensive numbers which may have surprised some outside of the program, there are still opportunities to improve. Some of those areas were conditioning related and getting in better basketball shape so he can play for longer stretches more often. This helps his stamina and should lower his foul totals which also means he can increase his impact on the court.
When the newcomers get more acclimated to college basketball, it would not be surprising if Dambrot was able to substitute players out for repeated lack of hustle or defensive miscues. It was something he did for part of his first season but did not stick with this approach since there was a lack of depth, some nagging injuries and he wanted his players to trust his vision.
Addressing Duquesne’s three-point success, 43.1% of its shots last season were from deep and the Dukes converted those at a 31.8% clip.
“I feel our three balls that we shot last year were all very good ones,” said Weathers. “We have very good shooters on our team, it is more so about them having the confidence to knock those shots down because I feel like we definitely are an inside-out team. When we have those shots, and we have a lot of them, it is about being confident and knocking it down.”
Dambrot does not hide that he is 62-years-old and numbers indicate that he is at a higher risk to test positive for COVID-19.
He also admits that coaches who have as much experience as he does are structured and have a certain set way of doing things, which is just not possible right now. It has been hard for him to adjust, but that is exactly what he has had to do.
“I try to be careful and not put myself at great risk or peril,” he explained. “I’ve never been one to worry about something that hasn’t happened, but by the same token I’ve never been a huge risk taker. I’m a guy that is fairly conservative. I don’t do a lot and I’m in good enough physical condition, knock on wood, where I can fight. God willing I don’t get it, but if I do, there’s nothing I can do as long as I follow all of the protocols and try to do the best job with it that I can.”
There is a general understanding that the season could end at any point and in truth there always is the potential that it never starts.
It is reasons such as these why the NCAA granted winter sports athletes an extra year of eligibility regardless of how many games are played this season. It would take at least 13 games played this season for a team to be eligible for the NCAA Tournament.
Weathers tries not to worry about longer-term things such as these but rather is trying to take things one day at a time.
“You kind of think about (things) like that but basketball really is a privilege so no matter how many games you play, just go out there and give it your all,” stated Weathers. “At the end of the day, you live with the results and you can live with yourself knowing you played hard. It is something you think about but can’t dwell on.”
Duquesne has not committed to a set plan for fans in stands this season. Of course with the UPMC Cooper Fieldhouse’s opening date yet to be confirmed, that throws a wrench in certain things, but beyond that orders concluded earlier this week for fans who wanted to purchase cardboard cutouts which would be displayed for any home game this season.
In a university-written press release published Wednesday it was stated that outside factors will determine the timelines and capacity when it comes to attendance and at each venue. If fans are permitted to attend there will be a very limited amount of tickets available both to adhere to the capacity limits while acknowledging social distancing.
There have been nine home games announced, all A-10 affairs in Davidson (Jan. 5), Fordham (Jan. 9), Rhode Island (Jan. 20), Saint Joseph’s (Jan. 30), Dayton (Feb. 2), VCU (Feb. 7), Massachusetts (Feb. 20), George Washington (Feb. 24) and St. Bonaventure (Mar. 3), all of which will be played at a venue or venues to be determined.
Dambrot stated during media day that there were no additional non-conference dates to announce meaning there is a gap in games from Dec. 3 until Dec. 30. Kentucky is a quarantine state for Pennsylvania, so it is quite possible that Duquesne may have to lay low for a period of time.
Duquesne will have a road game with Richmond Dec. 19 and Saint Louis Dec. 30 meaning the Dukes will likely face the top two teams in the A-10 preseason poll to open that portion of play.
Dambrot also said that Duquesne is working hard to add games to the non-conference schedule. In recent days teams have shut down including within the Atlantic 10’s own footprint as the Saint Louis Women’s Basketball Team had a positive test.
“Basketball really is a privilege so no matter how many games you play, just go out there and give it your all,” Weathers said. “At the end of the day, you live with the results and you can live with yourself knowing you played hard. It is something you think about but can’t dwell on.”
HE SAID IT
“When you’re eighth in the country in shot blocks, led the league in shot blocks and are in the top-10 of the league in steals the only thing I’ll say is he must be pretty bad on all other occasions to not be on the all-defensive team. The five guys on the all-defensive team are good defensive players but Mike is a versatile basketball player who can guard one-through-five when he wants to and has a good brain. I had Mike for a whole year at Akron and I never saw that side of him.” – Dambrot on Hughes not receiving Atlantic 10 Preseason All-Defensive Team honors