City Game features a lot of new faces at Pitt, Duquesne
Keith Dambrot nailed it. Right on the money.
“Duquesne didn't have nine bad coaches in a row,” he said. “It's impossible.”
Dambrot was speaking of the men who preceded him as Duquesne's basketball coach since 1977, the school's most recent NCAA Tournament appearance.
Not many Duquesne fans would know there were nine coaches before Dambrot, from John Cinicola to Jim Ferry. But Dambrot is well aware of his school's history and what his place could become in it.
But he also knows coaches and what makes a good one.
“They just didn't get enough guys, for whatever reason,” he said of his predecessors.
Which brings the discussion to the 86th installment of the City Game between crosstown rivals Duquesne (2-2) and Pitt (3-4) on Friday night at PPG Paints Arena.
Both teams are rebuilding in dramatic ways:
• Seven of Pitt's players are freshmen. Two seniors returned from last season when Pitt lost to Duquesne for the first time in 16 seasons.
• Duquesne has four freshmen, and five Division I transfers sitting out this season.
“(Pitt) is a lot like us in the sense of just trying to figure out who to play, when to play (them), who to shoot and when to pass,” Dambrot said. “Same issues we have here.”
Pitt has dominated the City Game, losing only three times over the past three decades, but Pitt coach Kevin Stallings sees the similarities between the rebuilding programs.
“We're both new to town, and it might as well be year No. 1 for me,” he said.
Dambrot never has coached against Stallings, but he has studied his teams, especially the one he will face Friday. He said this about Stallings, echoing similar comments made last year by Virginia Tech coach Buzz Williams.
“He's one of the best offensive coaches in the country,” Dambrot said. “He coaches like a football coach. He'll run the same look and instead of handing off, he'll run a play-action pass. You get the same look, but there are different endings to it.
“Very few coaches in the country coach like that. You can tell he's coached in leagues (SEC and ACC) where (opponents) had better athletes than him, and he's manufactured shots with skill and finesse. Anybody who thinks the guy's not a good coach doesn't know anything about basketball.”
Stallings said his coaching style is dictated by the type of team he is developing. “We have a bunch of good team basketball players,” he said.
The result of that is the defense is improving. After giving up 85 points to Penn State on Nov. 20, Pitt has allowed fewer points in every subsequent game. But he's not blessed with many players who have the experience or inclination to play one-on-one basketball.
“If I had a bunch of guys who were tremendous one-on-one players, I probably wouldn't have to be quite as deceptive and creative as we try to be at this juncture,” Stallings said.
Dambrot understands the line of thinking.
“When he gets good enough guys, he'll win, and if he doesn't get good enough guys, he won't win,” he said. “If we don't get good enough guys, we won't win.”
Neither coach is putting excessive importance on the City Game.
“I hate to sound like a coach,” Stallings said, “but it's really important (because) it's the next game. We really, really, really want to win the game. We really do. But we have a game on Tuesday no matter what happens Friday.”
Pitt seniors Ryan Luther and Jonathan Milligan were part of the Panthers' loss to Duquesne last year, and they both remember what it felt like. Luther was recruited by Duquesne and his father went there, so he recognizes the buzz surrounding the game.
“There's no denying it,” he said.
“We have a bunch of new guys who really don't know anything about the rivalry,” Milligan said. “Ryan and I, we probably have a little more of a chip on our shoulder just because of what happened last year.”