Coach Keith Dambrot, AD Dave Harper confident in plan to make Duquesne men's basketball a winner
The young camper's eyes grew wide when Duquesne coach Keith Dambrot pulled out his cell phone and showed him the text message.
The sender: LeBron James.
"Ever been to his house?" the boy wanted to know.
"Well, yes," Dambrot said.
And, thus, one small seed in the hopeful rebirth of Duquesne basketball was planted during Dambrot's camp recently at Palumbo Center. Even if the boy never becomes a college prospect, Dambrot said, perhaps his dad will take him to a game.
Dambrot, who was James' coach at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron, Ohio, knows the fix-it job won't be an easy one. He will need more than his friendship with James to make it work at Duquesne, but he said, "I'm sure if he gets a chance, he'll come to a game."
Not just because James supported the move, Dambrot believes coming to Duquesne after 13 successful seasons at Akron was a good decision despite the school's 40-year NCAA Tournament drought.
"Most of the decisions I've made in my life have been good ones," he said. "Not all, but most of them."
The man who made the decision to hire Dambrot is just this side of giddy when he talks about having all the elements in place to make the Dukes an eventual winner.
"The pillars of any good program we always refer to as the three C's," athletic director Dave Harper said, referring to conference, commitment and coach.
• Conference: Duquesne is a member of the Atlantic 10, a league that usually sends multiple teams to the NCAA Tournament. "There is a platform for success that if you do well in the conference, you can get into meaningful postseason play," Harper said.
That's true, but Duquesne has averaged only five conference victories over the past four years.
• Commitment. "We have reallocated resources. We added resources to do so," Harper said, declining to offer specific budget expenditures. "We're resourcing now with the ability to compete at the top of the conference."
He said more money has been made immediately available to help Dambrot's rebuilding program before it recedes to normal levels after a year or two.
Harper also said he is close to completing a $42 million fund-raising effort that will go toward facility renovations and will force the men's and women's basketball teams out of Palumbo for one season — 2018-19 or 2019-20.
• Coach. Harper proudly points to Dambrot's most notable feat at Akron, joining Duke, Gonzaga and Kansas as the only programs to win 21 or more games in each of the past 12 seasons. "Pretty good company," Harper said, smiling.
"Keith has a plan to accelerate this appropriately, accordingly, to make sure we can get into the top half of the conference more quickly than not."
That plan involves a two-pronged recruiting effort, bringing in three freshmen who must help now — there are only nine scholarship players on the roster, and no one will redshirt — and five others who transferred and must sit out until 2018-19.
The latest to commit is 6-foot-3 guard Frankie Hughes, who transferred from Missouri after leaving Louisville. The others are 5-8 guard Tavian Dunn-Martin (Akron), 6-8 center Michael Hughes (Akron), 6-4 guard Craig Randall II (Memphis) and 6-5 forward Marcus Weathers (Miami, Ohio). Randall has two years of eligibility remaining, and the others have three.
"I thought it was better to do it this way so we wouldn't have to fix it twice," Dambrot said. "Play a little short-handed the first year, still go out and really try to win games, but play with less depth than we would like to.
"If we get an injury or two, especially up front, that will present some problems."
But he defies anyone who thinks this will be merely a bridge season.
"I'm not going into this thinking we are going to have a below-average year," he said. "That's not really the way I operate."
Dambrot will rely heavily on five returning players (two starters), led by A-10 All-Rookie team choice Mike Lewis II. A sixth, 6-5 wide receiver Kellon Taylor, will join basketball at the end of the football season.
The most important player will be Lewis, a 6-1 guard who averaged 14.1 points as a freshman. He represents only the fourth freshman in history to lead the Dukes in scoring.
"My job is to make him a completely well-rounded player," Dambrot said. "He's a terrific shooter. I'm going to try to make him the best defender in the league, the best ball-handler in the league."
Lewis considered tranferring after former coach Jim Ferry was fired but decided to stay.
"The biggest thing was convincing him we could win," Dambrot said.
Lewis' decision to stay mitigated some of the ramifications of losing A-10 All-Rookie Team forward Isiaha Mike, who transferred to SMU.
The second returning starter is junior guard Tarin Smith, who averaged 8.6 points and led the team with 99 assists and 34 steals. Returnees who weren't regular starters include 6-2 guard Rene Castro-Caneddy, 6-6 forward Eric James and 6-8 center Jordan Robinson.
The key will be getting everyone to improve.
"The returning guys have to have the best years they've ever had, and our young guys have to act like they're sophomores and juniors and not freshmen," Dambrot said.
In any case, Dambrot, 58, said he will see this program through any tough times that arise over the next seven years.
"I never thought I'd work past 63 or 64, but at this stage, it looks like I'm gonna," said Dambrot, whose reported annual salary is $1 million. "As long as I feel good and my family is all in on it, I'm going to fulfill my seven years here. See how much I like it.
"If I still feel good at 65, I'll keep going. If I don't, I'll call it a career."
Duquesne rewarded Dambrot with a seven-year contract that, he said, is slightly above the norm in college basketball.
"If you want good people, you have to show good faith," he said. "Certainly, Duquesne showed good faith, and they came after me with that (contract length), and that's kind of what I needed to make the move."
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.