Dambrot says City Game success key to Duquesne's rebuilding
Keith Dambrot spent the entirety of his basketball coaching career doing his level best to treat every game the same, no matter the caliber of the opponent or magnitude of the contest.
He’s re-evaluating that stance.
The second-year Duquesne coach sees an added importance in the Dukes’ yearly City Game with crosstown rival Pitt, particularly as he attempts to re-establish a winning tradition at a program that last appeared in the NCAA Tournament in 1977.
“For us, if we’re going to become prominent, we have to beat Pitt,” Dambrot said Wednesday morning, two days before the annual City Game, 7 p.m. Friday at PPG Paints Arena.
“Like, we can’t expect the average Pittsburgh Joe to ever respect us after not being in the NCAA Tournament for 40 years if we can’t beat Pitt. And so it becomes a much bigger game in the overall perspective of what we’re trying to become. Not that it’s Pitt. It’s just the circumstances behind it.”
This season marks the 49th in a row Duquesne and Pitt have met, and recent results heavily favor the Panthers.
Pitt holds a 54-32 overall lead in the series, winning 16 of the past 17 games, including 76-64 last season.
But Duquesne put a dent in Pitt’s armor with a 64-55 win two years ago, snapping its 15-game losing streak.
“(That) was the best night of my college life so far,” said Duquesne junior guard Mike Lewis II, the only remaining player from either team to appear in that game. “That lets you know the impact of this game.”
The game presents a big chance for Duquesne (4-1) to make a statement. Not many teams the size of Duquesne get a yearly opportunity to play a team from a power conference like the ACC just steps away from campus. A victory would give the Dukes city bragging rights and could create a statement about the progress of their rebuild.
“It’s fun to play two or three times against big Power 5 conference teams, so it’s just a good feeling,” said Duquesne sophomore Eric Williams Jr., the Dukes’ leading scorer and rebounder. “Playing them, your rival, right here up the street is even better. That’s going to be great because not too many people get to play in an environment like that.”
Dambrot last season coached Duquesne to a 16-16 record, a six-win improvement from the Dukes’ 2016-17 campaign under Jim Ferry. Dambrot brought in the tallest recruiting class in school history and four Division I transfers.
The Dukes are continuing to show progress, their lone loss coming to Notre Dame in a game where they led with just over seven minutes remaining before the Fighting Irish used a 13-0 run to earn a 67-56 victory.
Jeff Capel is doing a similar rebuilding job in his first season at Pitt after the Panthers finished 8-24 last season under Kevin Stallings. Pitt (6-1) suffered its first loss Tuesday by one point at nationally ranked Iowa, but Dambrot praised the “Duke-like” grit that Capel has brought to the Panthers.
“Obviously, human nature, if you’re the Duquesne coach, is to probably hope that Pitt’s not good,” Dambrot said. “But I really hope that Pitt is good. One, I think (Capel is) a hard worker. He’s a good coach. And I think the city deserves it.
“But I think if we’re good and they’re good, now it becomes something special. Think about it: We’ve been putting in 10,000-plus (fans to the City Game) every year with Duquesne not being very good. And so, what does that tell you about the Pittsburgh people? They like the game. If we can both become NCAA Tournament quality teams, then I think there’ll be a sellout over there. Now you have something.”
Doug Gulasy is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Doug at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @dgulasy_Trib.