RICHMOND, Va. — In the 2020-21 men’s basketball season, progress has been difficult to measure.
Every team around the country has played fewer games than usual, making comparisons to a usual season’s record difficult. It’s pretty hard to win 20 games — a typical measure of a very successful season — if you don’t even play 20 games.
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Other familiar measuring sticks are also missing. The NIT field has been slashed in half, the CIT has been cancelled and whether or not the CBI will be held still seems very up in the air. So making postseason basketball, especially for a team on the outside looking into the NCAA Tournament’s field of 68, won’t be the same.
That says nothing of the disjointed season itself, with few or no fans in the stands, COVID-19 pauses in schedules, quarantined athletes and more.
So any concrete sign of progress should probably be latched onto as a sure-fire positive.
Duquesne found one of those last week at the Atlantic-10 tournament in Richmond. The Dukes beat the Spiders in the second round after receiving an opening-round bye. Duquesne lost in the quarterfinals to top-seeded St. Bonaventure, but just getting that far is something the Dukes haven’t done in a long time.
The last time Duquesne had won a conference tournament game was 2015, and the last time the Dukes appeared in an A10 quarterfinal was way back in 2011.
2021: No. 9 seed, lost in quarterfinals
2020: No. 6 seed, tournament canceled
2019: No. 7 seed, lost in second round
2018: No. 7 seed, lost in second round
2017: No. 14 seed, lost in first round
2016: No. 11 seed, lost in first round
2015: No. 11 seed, won in first round, lost in second round
2014: No. 7 seed, lost in first round
2013: Finished 16th, did not qualify for tournament
2012: No. 9 seed, lost in first round
2011: No. 4 seed, lost in quarterfinals
It’s a significant step forward for Duquesne in a season that had many pitfalls for most teams, but even more for the Dukes.
Duquesne played its second straight season without a home court, as the pandemic created construction delays that moved the opening of the UPMC Cooper Fieldhouse from the beginning of the season to near the end.
The Dukes had their schedule interrupted by COVID-19 four times: three due to positive cases in the Duquesne program and once because of an issue at Saint Louis — after the Dukes had already made their longest road trip of the season to visit the Billikens.
Duquesne also dealt with adversity within its program, with the midseason transfers of guards Sincere Carry and Lamar Norman and Maceo Austin stepping away from the team for a period for personal reasons.
Those departures forced head coach Keith Dambrot to rely on a freshman-heavy rotation to get through the second half of the season, and it’s that group that gained valuable experience in winning in the tournament last week.
“They got a lot of good, high-quality minutes, and it doesn’t count (against their eligibility), so that’s the best thing about it,” Dambrot said. “We’ve got a good nucleus of guys. We’ve just got to add a piece or two to the mix.”
Dambrot, of course, did not leave Richmond in a celebratory mood after his team came out flat in the quarterfinals against the Bonnies, posting just 19 points in the first half while going down in defeat and saying his team got what it deserved for its inconsistency.
Even given the circumstances of the pandemic, Duquesne’s 9-9 record and 7-7 marks in league play in of itself is not something anyone should necessarily be excited about. But the way the Dukes responded to their mid-seasons adversity, relying on young players to respond down the stretch and reach a level of A10 tournament success not seen in a decade should certainly be seen as a positive.
Just don’t ask Dambrot to see it that way.
“We went to nine straight championship games at Akron,” he said. “I’m not used to losing in the tournament. Unfortunately, we lost, two years and then last year, we didn’t get to play. To win is nice. But ultimately, Duquesne hasn’t been in the NCAA Tournament in 500 years. So until Duquesne goes to the NCAA Tournament, I’m not going to be really happy. How can you be?”
If you’re a competitor like Dambrot, that’s probably a healthy attitude to have. But if you’re looking for a light at the end of the tunnel, Duquesne showed some solid signs of progress in 2020-21.