Jacob Hebda | Staff Writer
Nov. 14, 2019
Way back in early February of 2018, 3,411 fans packed the A.J. Palumbo Center to cheer on the Dukes as they faced St. Bonaventure.
That attendance total crushed the previous high for that season, 2,543.
In his postgame interview, first-year coach Keith Dambrot remarked, “They [the fans] might as well come to the game. They’re going to see some good stuff… It’s fun, isn’t it?”
Duquesne fell short on a late 3-pointer from the Bonnies’ Jaylen Adams, but the message was clear — this wasn’t the same old Duquesne program.
Dambrot’s team clearly wasn’t ready yet, but they were exciting to watch, as the improvement from previous years was undeniable.
The Dukes lost six of their following seven that season. Frankly though, it didn’t matter.
That’s because the season already sparked something unwitnessed in years — hope.
The team hobbled to the finish line that year, concluding with a 16-16 record. It was by no means pretty, but it was still just the eighth .500 record of the century.
The following season, they finished at 19-13. It was another noteworthy post-2000 milestone, as it was the program’s fifth winning record of this millennium.
Here we are now, almost two years later. Not a single starter from that St. Bonaventure game is still on the roster. In fact, the only current player that was eligible for that game was senior Caleb Davis.
Dambrot’s roster has undergone plenty of transition since. This past summer alone saw the likes of Eric Williams Jr., Brandon Wade, Gavin Bizeau and Dylan Swingle transfer from the program.
Notable players like Mike Lewis and Tarin Smith are gone too. Rene Castro-Caneddy has graduated.
It hasn’t been a smooth ride so far, but that’s to be expected when you’re trying to reverse nearly forty years of mostly listlessness.
By no means is this year’s team the finished product, but it’s hard not to like the direction the program is headed.
Star sophomore Sincere Carry looked as healthy and skillful as ever in the season opener against Princeton, posting 23 points and five assists.
Returners Tavian Dunn-Martin, Mike Hughes, Lamar Norman and Marcus Weathers provided solid support with a combined 36 points.
Weathers was especially strong, grabbing seven rebounds to go with his 16 points.
High-profile freshman Maceo Austin only scored eight points, but he flashed his potential throughout the night.
Perhaps most impressive was graduate transfer Baylee Steele, who had 19 points. .He drained more three-pointers, three, in that game than he had in the entirety of his previous college career.
Despite trailing at halftime, the Dukes rallied to blow out the visiting Tigers, 94-67.
Again, this is not a finished product. But the progress is obvious. The team now stands at 2-0 after a scrappy win over Lamar.
In the last two years, Dambrot has led less talented teams to surprisingly good seasons. It’ll be fun to see what he can do now that he has a more complete squad.
The feel of this program is different, and it’s not just because of the roster turnover.
There’s a new logo complemented by fresh uniforms. The A.J. Palumbo Center will soon be finished as the new UPMC Cooper Fieldhouse.
In less than two years, the entire outlook of the program has shifted.
It’s not the same program we’re used to. Seemingly gone are the days of home-court blowouts and baffling letdowns. The season opener appeared to signify as much.
This team probably won’t end Duquesne’s NCAA tournament drought this season, but there’s plenty of reason to be hopeful that it will soon.
As the Dambrot era continues, pressure will inevitably ramp up. You can’t always be on the upswing. Potential generates excitement, but results are what earn you the seven-year, seven-million-dollar contract Dambrot received.
But in the meantime, it’s impossible not to enjoy what we’re watching. The program has hope. The players seem to be having fun.
Those are the kind of statements seldom heard before Dambrot arrived.
There’s a long way to go, sure. But Dambrot spoke correctly during that St. Bonaventure postgame interview. Fans might as well show up.
Not only will they have fun and watch some good basketball, but they can look forward to the future.