It was early Friday morning at the UPMC Cooper Fieldhouse practice gym and Duquesne Men’s Basketball Coach Keith Dambrot had massaged his players but that was about to change.
A practice that started at 8 a.m. ended nearly three-and-a-half hours later and featured tough love from Dambrot to the extent of players being challenged directly and players being told to get off the court after repeated mistakes.
“Soft teams don’t win, so you either get stress from me or in the game or from opposing fans and players, so you might as well get used to it in practice” Dambrot said. “I try to hold them to a high standard. We’ve had some turnover issues, so I got on them hard on turnovers today.”
Dambrot has had to find a balance, because of the massive disappointments felt across the board a season ago, trying to let that get out of his head and because this year’s group has been receptive to what he has asked, patience has been far easier to come by.
Now though, the Nov. 8 season opener against Montana is fast approaching and there still is plenty which remains to be determined, and challenging the team is a way to figure out who is receptive and can rise to the occasion.
“He really tries to test us every day,” graduate student forward Austin Rotroff explained. “As the season gets closer, we need to be sharper on details every day. I liked how he challenged us, and we responded. We’ve put some good, long practice days in. The mental engagement has been better each week. I think we’re ready to do some good things to start the season.”
Across the board, these types of practices are viewed as important because it will shape how the team will look when it takes the court.
“How we play is physical, others may have a different say so,” junior transfer guard Dae Dae Grant stated. “It’s playing hard every rep that we get and that will dictate what’s going on in the game and we are practicing harder than the game will be.”
As it stands, graduate student guard Tevin Brewer remains sidelined from practice, and is slowly being brought up to speed.
Dambrot believes that Brewer is needed to play 30 minutes at a high level in order for this team to be at its best.
Additionally, junior Tre Clark has had some minor injuries which he has practiced through but is not at full strength. According to Dambrot he should be a full go for the Montana game, but for now this directly affects players the sixth-year coach believes are two of the four most consistent performers thus far.
Regardless, this has added additional responsibility towards freshman guards Devin Carney, Kareem Rozier among others.
“That puts them in tougher positions, so we have to make sure they are ready for the stress,” Dambrot explained. “We’re playing those three young kids at the point and they’re doing a great job really, but other than Kareem, they’re natural wingers, but good with the ball. In the long run it’s going to help us, but in the short term, it’s stressful.”
Now as the younger guards start to develop, perhaps quicker that Dambrot initially anticipated, questions emerge as to how many will play at the beginning of the season.
“We’ve got really good depth at all positions but most importantly we’ve got good guys who love playing basketball, challenge each other and enjoy being vocal,” said Rotroff. “It’s going to be hard to figure out a limit of guys to play because we have so much talent. Our ceiling is really high it’s putting the right pieces together.”
Even Dambrot thinks it is a tough call, which will only become more challenging in the coming days.
“Guys like (David) Dixon we need to play because he’s talented,” he said. “He can block shots and run, but he may throw it out of bounds too. You have to juggle that a bit and the more he plays, the better he’ll be. Meantime we’ve got to win, so it’s a tough juggle.”
The players who did decide to return have each taken on new challenges to help bring the standard back which saw Duquesne improve upon its preseason standing in each of Dambrot’s first three seasons and also won an Atlantic 10 Championship game two seasons ago.
For Rotroff, he has taken on becoming more of a vocal leader, which is a role new to him, but clearly something which he embraced during Friday’s practice session, communicating at an unprecedented level.
“It’s kind of outside of my comfort zone as far as what I naturally do,” he stated. “I’ve always been a good leader by example, but I needed to pick guys up verbally and be an energizer. Even if I don’t play or feel great it’s bringing a positive vibe or calling out my teammates in the right way and teaching. It’s been a challenge, but we have a lot of guys who respond well to positive reinforcement and are mature enough to handle being called out.”
Dambrot is proud of Rotroff for battling and being stronger than he’s ever been.
Tre Williams is Duquesne’s top returning scorer from a season ago, though he missed the last four games of the season due to a right-knee injury which required surgery.
Williams was able to lose the weight gained from surgery, winning a pushup bet against assistant coach Charles Thomas. Williams is starting to round into form and is moving with purpose.
Kevin Easley Jr has added muscle and strength to his game and his shot has a lot more air under it than a season ago. The biggest piece is finding that consistency as playing time becomes far more competitive than a season ago.
R.J. Gunn appeared leaner and more muscular than a season ago and though Dambrot put him on the second group in Friday’s practice, the coach believes his graduate student forward should start.
Andy Barba and Jaylen Cole-Williams are also returners from a season ago, with each expecting a growing role this season.
This returning group has a level of focus as it works to balance remembering the pain last year brought and moving forward.
Rotroff believes that through multiple meetings as a returning group, they were able to assess why last season pinballed the way that it did.
Now it is moving forward as a team with the determination not to let it happen again.
“You don’t want to make excuses, but we had a lot of games that came down to the last possession. Colorado, Marshall, Fordham, those losses deflate you,” explained Rotroff. “We were playing decently but a bunch of those games that could have gone either way and that is deflating to the group. Just have to do better to overcome and I can see we are doing better with that this year.”
NEW ADDITIONS FIGURING OUT ROLES
With so much newness whether it be freshmen or transfers, it is finding the right puzzle pieces to put together.
Grant has long had a relationship with Dambrot, but it was the long-term loyalty displayed which won him over as now sees him as a Duke.
“I like having to adapt to new things, but the challenge has been the defensive end, learning a new system from the one I was in for three years at Miami,” Grant offered. “The defense and a little bit of the offense was challenging at first but I’m starting to get a handle on it.”
With so much newness, it has only helped the group bond closer, united by common goals.
Assessing Grant, Dambrot is trying to make him less “homerun/strikeout” but loves how coachable he is in addition to displaying good effort. Grant’s ability to score the basketball is certainly not in question.
“I sharpened my mind a little bit and I really took the weight room seriously; I got a lot stronger and a lot leaner muscle,” said Grant. “That and trying to better my quicker laterally and explosion. I’m just going to continue working.”
Dambrot lumped Rosier, Matus Hronsky and Quincy McGriff in the same category of “trying like mad”. Hronsky in particular was challenged in Friday’s practice but responded.
Dixon was able to display some of his potential and concluded practice with a block which drew the praise of assistant coach Rick McFadden.
Joe Reece was also challenged at a high level by Dambrot as he works to find his voice within the system. His ability and range were very much present and could help Duquesne achieve success.
Carney showed a propensity for putting the ball in the basket, but his biggest challenge appeared to be getting back on defense and making that transition.
Neither Halil Barre nor Jake Harper practiced Friday when PSN attended practice.
The regular season is a week away and it is clear that Duquesne has high aspirations, but equally as important is returning the culture to the level it was previously at and then pushing beyond, something it appears this roster is eager to do.
“I take on that challenge some would say,” Grant said. “I’m all for challenges, especially if it’s something like basketball. I would never look at it as a bad responsibility or so much pressure. I’m coming out here to play ball with a whole bunch of other people who like to play this game too. I’m just excited to go out there and see what we are.”