Host Duquesne, coach Keith Dambrot hope to play in NCAA Tournament soon
Keith Dambrot might pop into PPG Paints Arena at some point Thursday or Saturday to watch some of the NCAA Tournament first and second rounds.
Otherwise, Duquesne's men's basketball coach is spending his first week of the offseason focused on getting the Dukes into the tournament themselves, a spot they last reached in 1977.
That means recruiting and other work to get the program on the right path after Duquesne showed improvement in 2017-18, Dambrot's first season at the helm.
“We made some progress,” said Dambrot, who led Akron to more than 300 victories and three NCAA Tournament appearances in 13 seasons before replacing Jim Ferry on the Bluff last March. “We're obviously not where we want to be. We want to be in the top half of the league. We want to be at the top of the league, really, so that we can compete for at-large bids. But Rome wasn't built in a day, that's for sure.”
Duquesne finished 16-16 under Dambrot, including 7-11 in Atlantic 10 play. The Dukes last won seven league games in 2011-12, Ron Everhart's final season.
With just five scholarship players returning, the Dukes showed both growth and growing pains. They started 5-2 in conference play but dropped 10 of their final 12 games. Included in that stretch were narrow losses to NCAA Tournament teams Davidson, Rhode Island and St. Bonaventure.
“I think we probably gravitated towards the mean a little bit, to use a statistical term,” Dambrot said. “We probably played better than we should have earlier, the middle of the season, and then we kind of gravitated back. We were still in a lot of games. We just couldn't finish it off. Part of that could have been mental and physical fatigue, and part of it might have been we're just not good enough yet.”
Dambrot faced a similar circumstance when he took over at Akron in 2004. The Zips' most recent NCAA appearance then came in 1986 under Bob Huggins.
In Dambrot's first season, he led the Zips to their first winning record in five years. He took Akron to the NCAA Tournament in 2009 and to 10 postseason tournaments in his last 12 years.
“Every program's different, but obviously when you haven't played an NCAA Tournament game in 40 years, this is quite a challenge,” Dambrot said. “The last nine coaches here have been fired.”
But the 59-year-old Dambrot knows firsthand the history of Duquesne's program, as his father, Sid, played for three Associated Press top-10 teams in the 1950s. There was the NIT runner-up finish in 1954, the NIT championship the following year, and a run of success from the late 1960s to the early '80s.
Dambrot said it “takes a village” to build a successful program, and Duquesne athletic director Dave Harper and the university's commitment to investing in that success played a large role in luring him for Akron.
“Every day since I've been fortunate enough to become athletic director, it's motivating,” Harper said. “There's nothing that drives us more than wanting success in men's basketball and being a valued member of the Atlantic 10. Certainly when you see a Selection Sunday and see the conference tournaments going on, you want to be playing on those days. And certainly when you see it up close and personal, it's that much more of a motivator.”
Harper is playing the role of host this week with the NCAA Tournament in town, but by the time it returns in 2022, he'd like to delegate that responsibility to someone else and spend his time at other sites with the Duquesne men's and women's teams.
Fundraising for facility improvement is continuing under Harper. Dambrot signed the tallest recruiting class in program history in November, landing four players 6-foot-9 or bigger in the five-man group.
Those players will join a core of returners that includes sophomore Mike Lewis II, the team's leading scorer; junior Tarin Smith, the Atlantic 10 Sixth Man of the Year; and freshman Eric Williams Jr., a member of the league's All-Rookie Team.
“My goal is when I retire that the program's in good-enough shape that it continues to be good every single year,” Dambrot said. “That's really what my goal is: to resurrect this thing where the fans don't have to go through 40 years of misery.
“I'm going to work really hard. Obviously, there's a lot of factors involved and hard work isn't the only factor, but I'm going to work really hard to try to bring it back. I'm going to work like I was 25 again.”