Kevin Gorman's Take 5: Five thoughts on Keith Dambrot and Duquesne hoops
1. Differing approaches: Duquesne's Keith Dambrot and Pitt's Kevin Stallings entered the season in essentially the same spot: Building a basketball program from the ground up.
But they took different approaches: Where Stallings lost top returning scorer Cameron Johnson to a transfer, Dambrot convinced top returning scorer Mike Lewis II to stay. Where Stallings brought in nine newcomers (seven freshmen) and only one transfer, Dambrot added five transfers and three freshmen.
Duquesne is 14-8, while Pitt is 8-14.
But the Panthers beat the Dukes in the City Game before Ryan Luther was lost to a season-ending injury. And Duquesne is 5-4 in an Atlantic-10 that has only one nationally ranked team, No. 22 Rhode Island, while Pitt is 0-9 in an ACC with No. 2 Virginia, No. 4 Duke, No. 19 North Carolina and No. 20 Clemson.
Dambrot intentionally built a non-conference schedule to help his Dukes build confidence following a 10-22 season, one ranked the nation's second-easiest by KenPom.com. Dambrot thanked Duquesne athletic director Dave Harper for making it happen.
“For this program, we did absolutely right thing to give them enough belief that they could win games in the A-10,” Dambrot said Tuesday. “I think it was absolutely the best schedule that I've ever had for a particular team. This team needed that. For this year's team, that was the perfect schedule.”
2. Man with a plan: Lewis was on the fence about whether to stay or transfer following the firing of Jim Ferry until the sophomore guard from St. Louis met with Dambrot and his coaching staff.
“They laid out a plan. That's the kind of guy I am. I like to have a plan and take things step by step,” said Lewis, who drew Power 5 interest from ACC and Big 12 programs but wasn't allowed to make contact. “We both knew it was going to be a hard process this season, that we were going to have some ups and some downs. Fortunately, we have a lot more ups than downs this year.
“I didn't necessarily want to leave this city. I love the city. I love the school. I love how small it is. It feels like home. But the losing killed me last year. In high school, I probably lost 12 games in four years. Coming in and losing 22 games my first year, I was like, ‘Oh my God! What is going on?' I'm glad I did stick around.”
3. Reviving Castro-Caneddy: Dambrot knew that fifth-year senior guard Rene Castro-Caneddy had endured a star-crossed career, first at Butler and then at Duquesne.
Castro-Caneddy scored just 48 points in his first 19 games with the Dukes before a breakout 26-point performance against St. Francis, and averaged 7.1 points last season. He's averaging 13.2 points a game this season, with a team-high 70 assists. He has five games with 20 or more points and 15 in double digits for the Dukes.
But it was Castro-Caneddy's coach at Butler that made Dambrot think twice.
“When we got here, we heard the stories. I'm thinking to myself, ‘Who's one of the smartest coaches in the world?' I think of Brad Stevens. And Brad Stevens recruited Rene Castro — and I remembered Rene in AAU; he's got some talent — and Brad makes very few mistakes,” said Dambrot, who credited assistant coach Steve McNees, a former Shenango star, with making an impact on Castro-Caneddy. “So, we meet with Rene and he's brutally honest. Immediate connection, with me and him. Stevie's really the one who talked him into staying. I like honest people. He told me his flaws, everything that's wrong with him. I liked him and I didn't care what anybody said. And for a guy who's had high expectations, he's had a pretty miserable career. All I did was spend a lot of time with him, convinced him to get in the gym. He still has some deficiencies, but if he doesn't stay we don't win any. Think about that. If Jordan doesn't stay, we don't win. Those guys staying kept us from winning three games. ... We're in it together. We've just got to prove everybody wrong.”
4. Practice makes problems: With five transfers from Division-I programs, the Dukes have an oddity where there might be more talent on the bench than there is in the starting lineup.
That caused problems at practice.
Dambrot was followed by two Akron transfers in Tavian Dunn-Martin, a 5-8 point guard, and Michael Hughes, a 6-9 center, and welcomed 6-4 guards Frankie Hughes from Missouri and Craig Randall II from Memphis and 6-5 forward Marcus Weathers from Miami (Ohio).
When they took it to the Dukes' starters in practice, Dambrot found it to be counterproductive.
“They've helped us and they've hurt us,” Dambrot said. “About two or three weeks before Christmas, we quit letting them practice with us, which is crazy, right? We had separate practices for them. For one, they're playing their games in practice. So they're beating our brains in and talking and they're hurting our confidence and they're hurting our chemistry. Now, we've brought them back. That's been a juggling act for me because I've never had so many. If you have one, that's no big deal. But we have five of them.”
Which means the Dukes will have a major infusion of talent in the lineup next season but potentially more headaches for Dambrot, who will have to figure out how to keep everyone happy.
5. Dambrot loves Duquense: Dambrot loves to talk about how his father, Sid, played for the Dukes from 1952-54 and how motivated that makes him to return Duquesne back to basketball prominence.
Not just because he's a legacy.
Dambrot wants to leave one of his own.
He joked about how he brought six recruits to The Bluff this past fall and signed five of them, which means either he's recruiting the wrong players or there's a lot to like about Duquesne University.
“Duquesne's always had this inferiority complex, this woe is me, you can't win here, last nine guys have been fired (over) 40 years,” Dambrot said. “It's a good job. It's an unbelievable city, a great job market, a good school academically, great leadership. Maybe it's just my timing – but if you don't win, something's wrong. Once we win, my goal is after I leave, when I retire, that Duquesne's always good. First, I've got to get there.”
Duquesne has to love Dambrot's attitude.
Now, he just has to get the Dukes to win.