It was a day after a hard loss to the Davidson and it would have been easy for the Duquesne Men’s Basketball Team to sulk.
The Dukes lost to a fundamentally sound Wildcats team, because it let the visitors dictate play, while the hosts were running through metaphorical quicksand and did not make the proper adjustment to speed up until it was too late.
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Yet here everyone was smiling because the nets were set up and rackets out with players and coaches competing in pickleball.
This was an exercise the Dukes already had once attempted during the offseason to build chemistry and now it was being done to prepare for the stretch run.
Sweat filled Assistant Coach Terry Weigand’s shirt as he chased the ball down from all angles and hit overhead slams. Everyone played, everyone smiled and, in the end, Weigand and his partner Austin Rotroff emerged victorious.
When each regular season comes to an end, all 15 Atlantic 10 coaches will vote on their all-conference awards and individual awards, but when it comes to coach of the year perhaps a little outside-of-the-box thinking should be taken into account.
By all means, VCU’s Mike Rhoades will and should receive consideration. He has won the award before and after being picked third in preseason, the first afterthought behind Dayton and Saint Louis, the unquestioned favorites coming into the year.
Following a loss to Duquesne, Rhoades was questioned by the VCU fan base which was unrelenting. Many wanted to see him fired, but instead this became a rallying cry that allowed the team to play at a high level, a credit to Rhoades for not wavering in his belief of his program.
When Kyle Neptune went from Fordham to Villanova, there was a thought that these Rams would revert back to the old behaviors which made it the league’s punching bag, but instead Keith Urgo moved a chair over and set up a non-conference schedule which would have it gain confidence and establish defensive principles.
Urgo was the clear right choice, the players bought in from day one and Fordham has rallied behind him as evidenced by 21 wins, while currently sitting third in the Atlantic 10 standings with a program-record 11 triumphs. Now it has an inside track for one of four double byes.
All season long Urgo has pushed the right buttons and the team is doing historic seasons.
There is one last candidate and that is Keith Dambrot.
On the surface Dambrot’s case does not look as strong as one or maybe both of the above names, but he had to do more to get into this position.
Dambrot was left for dead multiple times as Duquesne’s coach, many calling him crazy for making the jump from what was deemed a sure thing in Akron to a Dukes team starving for a culture change and a winner.
Indeed Dambrot built a winner, though we will never know how that 2019-20 program would have finished its season because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
That team had more talent than this 2022-23 squad, but this year’s unit has more determination, heart and teamwork than any Dambrot has had.
After the 2020-21 season, Dambrot felt he had lost control of the team and quite frankly he had. He lost multiple players to transfer and those that stayed did not display the attitude their coach desired.
It was in the press conference following the season-ending loss to St. Bonaventure that Dambrot made clear that things would change.
He was seizing back control.
Within a handful of months, almost the entire roster was gutted and it was time for Duquesne to start over and Dambrot made a statement prior to the season that he believed those on that 2021-22 squad were championship quality.
Between injuries, players playing out of position, a lack of ball movement and a series of losses which demoralized the roster it was clear that team did not get the job done.
Many fans wanted that to be the end of Dambrot, but VP of Athletics Dave Harper held firm and the two set out to plan on the upcoming season.
Dambrot had basically been left for dead and he decided to attack it the way he had in the past and he channeled 25-year-old Keith Dambrot.
It was clear in that previous season that things were not going as expected, so Dambrot sent assistant coaches to recruit instead of sitting on the bench for a game which was going to have an obvious outcome.
In the preseason poll, Duquesne was picked last, a placement largely reflected on the previous season and perhaps doubt that Dambrot could still effectively find, evaluate and grow talent while also making them believe.
While they doubted, Dambrot put in overtime, refusing to let 2021-22 happen again.
The players came and those who did were motivated. Each fit a piece of the puzzle and as roles have been more clearly defined the whining which affected past teams was gone.
Sure there have been frustrations and play has not been perfect, but Dambrot has consistently pushed the right buttons at the right time with a mix of transfers, returners and freshmen.
He has made Kareem Rozier, a freshman the leader of this team, seeing how teammates took to him. In a losing press conference, Dambrot brought Rozier along.
The defense while not perfect, has significantly improved under the watchful eye of associate head coach Dru Joyce III who has been fulfilling many of Dambrot’s responsibilities as well whether it be radio or press interviews. The players clearly can relate to Joyce as both sides learn together.
Dae Dae Grant was largely known as a scorer before and still is, but his passing, defense and leadership have improved at Duquesne.
Jimmy Clark III has allowed for his defense to shine, his offense has taken a jump and he has found his voice.
Tre Williams has a clear role that he has taken to, defending an opponent’s best post and it works for all sides.
Tevin Brewer was a great find in the offseason and has toughed out multiple injuries to contribute. Joe Reece has shown to be extremely coachable and has come on late in the season.
Dambrot believed in RJ Gunn coming off an injury when maybe others did not and he has responded.
After that preseason prognostication, Duquesne finds itself in fifth place. Say what you will about in-game adjustments, Dambrot has built a talented team where often the fix is just playing harder, with more desire and focus.
Duquesne can out-talent teams once again and has shown that at times this season.
The case for Dambrot may not be the sexiest or the most newsworthy, but it almost echoes his team. Duquesne has consistently been disrespected in the conference and the physicality and edge it plays with can rub teams the wrong way, it certainly has in the past, but that is fine for the Dukes so long as it keeps winning.
Moments after sitting down from Monday’s pickleball tournament, Dambrot got hit in the face by a wayward shot and he could not help but smile.
Dambrot is exactly where he wants to be and has a group that he is ready to go to war with.