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Duquesne coach Keith Dambrot downplays annual City Game with Pitt

Jerry DiPaola
| Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2017, 6:03 p.m.
Keith Dambrot has begun his first season as Duquesne men's basketball coach.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Keith Dambrot has begun his first season as Duquesne men's basketball coach.

There are at least 413 reasons Duquesne athletic director Dave Harper hired Keith Dambrot to run his basketball program, one for each victory during his 19 full seasons as a coach.

Add one more: Dambrot thinks before he speaks, and he has a lot to say.

When he sat down and chatted with reporters Wednesday morning in advance of the 86th City Game against Pitt on Friday at PPG Paints Arena, he didn't want his thoughts about the rivalry to be misinterpreted. After all, it has been played almost every year since 1932.

Dambrot paused, collected his thoughts and said, “People may not like that I say this.” But he said it, anyway.

“I want to win the (Pitt) game, but I have bigger fish to fry,” he said. “I have enough issues on my plate that I just have to get my team to play better and build (the program) from the ground up.

“One win over Pitt is not going to make or break us in the grand scheme of where I want to take the program. One loss against Pitt is not going to make or break us.

“(Duquesne) won the City Game last year (before Dambrot arrived) and it didn't do anything for them, really, right?”

In his first year at Duquesne, Dambrot is adjusting to a different set of circumstances than he experienced during his highly successful 13-year run at Akron.

First of all, after four games, the Dukes have won as many as they have lost, including seven-point defeats to Robert Morris and Cornell, both of whom come from conferences (Northeast and the Ivy League) considered inferior to the Atlantic 10.

Said Dambrot: “2-2 is losing to me.”

Of course it is. He hasn't coached a team that finished with a losing record since Central Michigan in 1993.

“If you're going to be a good Atlantic 10 team, you have to beat those teams,” he said, “just like Pitt has to beat us if they're going to be a good ACC team until we get up to a Top-25 level.”

There are obstacles standing in Dambrot's way:

• A spate of injuries has put pressure on an already thin bench.

• Trying to teach his players how to react when — as he expressed it — “you get hit in the mouth.”

The injuries have forced Dambrot to play four of his five starters an average of 36.2, 34, 33.8 and 31 minutes per game.

Here's an example of Duquesne's lack of depth: Football player Kellon Taylor joined the team Nov. 19 — the day following the last game — and found himself in the starting lineup eight days later after four practices.

“I felt like we needed an energy boost,” Dambrot said.

Forwards Chas Brown (foot) and Marko Krivacevic (left wrist) haven't played yet, although Brown could play Monday against Maryland Eastern Shore, Dambrot said.

Plus, guard Tarin Smith (ankle) and forward Eric James (knee) are hobbled. Smith vowed to play against Pitt, but Dambrot noted, “I don't think he moved great (at Wednesday's practice).”

Actually, Dambrot has few alternatives when injuries occur or a player's performance sags.

“I know they're going to play, they know they're going to play,” he said. “For most young people today, that's not a good thing. There has to be some fear of the bench. Most people aren't that self-motivated.”

Fortunately for Dambrot, guard Mike Lewis, last year's leading scorer as a freshman, can't be lumped among “most people.”

When Lewis failed to score against Robert Morris, Dambrot pulled him from the starting lineup for the Cornell game. He responded by scoring 13 points in 24 minutes.

“You only have two choices when you get hit in the mouth,” Dambrot said. “Do you put the white flag up, or do you keep working?”

Lewis appears to understand the importance of working hard, setting a good example and not feeling sorry for yourself. And the difficulties this season will bring.

“Every game we play is going to be a close game,” he said. “We have to find a way to come together at those times instead of splintering apart.

“We need better leadership from myself and Rene (Castro-Caneddy, a graduate senior guard averaging 20 points). We just haven't made winning plays.”

Nonetheless, Lewis said there is a big difference between last season's team that finished 10-22 and this season.

“Everything is more intense,” he said. “Everybody is on edge at all times.”

Sounds stressful, but Lewis said, “It's a good thing.”

“We understand how intense (Dambrot) is and how intense we need to be while still being relaxed.”

Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jdipaola@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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