Adam Lindner | Sports Editor
March 4, 2021
Keith Dambrot, in his fourth season at the helm of the Duquesne men’s basketball program, has seemingly seen it all. He helped mold LeBron James, who’s already among basketball’s most esteemed figures ever, during the NBA legend’s formative years in Akron, Ohio. He led the Akron Zips to 305 wins, three NCAA tournaments and four NITs during his 13-year tenure at the university. He’s coached both with and against an extended list of vaunted basketball minds, current Texas coach Shaka Smart being his most notable protege. The list goes on and on.
Wait — actually, scratch that.
As it turns out, nobody could have truly prepared themselves for the havoc COVID-19 wreaked on our world. Especially not someone in Dambrot’s position, who’s been tasked with leading a Division I basketball program during an unprecedented time in our history. Living, in and of itself, is hard enough during a global pandemic; coaching a team full of young people to do practically anything right now is damn near unimaginable.
The virus’ proliferation began right around this time last year. It’s the reason Dambrot is in his fourth season on the Bluff yet the Dukes are preparing to play only their third Atlantic 10 tournament game under Dambrot’s guidance.
It’s not that the Dukes missed the A-10 tourney during Dambrot’s tenure. Each of the conference’s 14 teams make the bracket each year, with its bottom four seeds playing in a colloquial first-round “pillow fight” and its top four teams receiving double-byes.
Rather, Duquesne faltered in its opening matchups in 2018 and ‘19, losing to Richmond and Saint Joseph’s, respectively. The Dukes’ 2020 tourney opener was set to be Dambrot’s third conference tournament appearance with Duquesne and, by all indications, his first win — last season’s team found itself seeded sixth and slotted to open play against last-place Fordham before the A-10 scrapped its tournament because of COVID-19.
Fordham had beaten No. 11 George Washington in the league’s pillow fight the day before in what would eventually be the bracket’s final contest. Before UMass and VCU could tip off at 12 p.m. March 12, the league announced it was canceling the remainder of its tourney.
Yesterday, No. 13 Saint Joseph’s beat La Salle and GW topped bottom-seeded Fordham, setting the stage for a Thursday full of second-round games. The No. 9 Dukes will kick off the slate with an 11 a.m. showdown against Richmond.
Well, that’s the plan, at least.
Barring any unforeseen COVID-19-protocol-related hiccups between press time and 11 a.m., Duquesne will be playing tournament basketball for the first time since March 14, 2019. The Dukes’ Thursday opponent is a familiar foe: Richmond bested Duquesne, 79-72, Feb. 20 in Richmond.
The No. 8 Spiders, the preseason conference favorite, enjoyed a decent non-conference showing but only managed to post a 6-5 mark in A-10 play. Richmond has stumbled down the stretch, dropping its final two games to the likes of Saint Louis and Saint Joe’s.
The Dukes and Spiders have both endured multiple COVID-19 shutdowns this season, with neither team playing particularly well following virus-induced pauses (Duquesne and Richmond are a combined 1-3 in games played directly following program pauses, the only win being the Dukes’ Jan. 2 triumph at GW).
Duquesne has seen serious mid-season roster turnover while, to a lesser extent, Richmond has dealt with departures of its own. Both teams have had to manage injuries and conditioning problems, too — Richmond guard Nick Sherod missed the season due to a preseason knee injury and center Grant Golden’s broken finger is a major topic of discussion entering Thursday’s matchup.
It’s been a wild, wacky, ridiculous season — one that’s seen Duquesne experience the highest of highs (the Dukes opened their newly-renovated arena by beating Dayton on ESPN2) and the lowest of lows (news of star guard Sincere Carry’s departure from the team came Jan. 9; Duquesne was already sitting at 1-2 in-conference at the time).
How did we get here?
Who: Given everything Duquesne’s regular season saw, it can largely be marked as a satisfactory showing. If the A-10 was a class, the Dukes would be getting a C+ for their efforts.
Carry’s departure — which came four days after Lamar Norman Jr. announced his intentions to transfer Jan. 5 — coincided with news that Maceo Austin would be stepping away from the team for personal reasons (Austin has since rejoined the team). The guard trio’s respective departures left Duquesne, in the midst of its A-10 slate, with a massive hole in its backcourt — Carry was one of the team’s foremost stars and led the team in assists by a wide margin; Norman and Austin provided much-needed floor spacing for the Dukes.
In their stead, freshmen Chad Baker, Toby Okani, Tyson Acuff and Mike Bekelja have enjoyed augmented roles, as has senior point guard Tavian Dunn-Martin. Dunn-Martin, who’s been tasked as a spark-plug scorer off the bench in years past, is now serving as the team’s lead playmaker. Austin has since rejoined the fold and is still re-acclimating himself physically.
The Dukes’ frontcourt, though, has been what’s allowed Duquesne to muscle its way to a .500 record despite its mid-season roster attrition. Namely, Marcus Weathers and Michael Hughes have been terrific — the tandem accounts for nearly 40% of the team’s scoring average, spearheaded by Weathers’ 16.1 average. Weathers embraced an even larger role in the offense following the aforementioned losses, and following early-season conditioning issues, the forward appears to be playing his best basketball at the right time: He posted a gaudy career-high 28 points and a career-high-tying 14 rebounds in the regular season finale against Rhode Island Feb. 27.
Freshman big Andre Harris has also impressed this season, flashing glimpses of his potential and giving Dambrot an impactful frontcourt option off the bench.
What: Well, it’s an 11 a.m. matchup against a solid Richmond squad.
But the Dukes are hoping this is the beginning of a four-game run to the A-10 title, which would be the program’s first since 1977. If Duquesne gets by Richmond, a quarterfinal date with top-seeded St. Bonaventure awaits.
The road to Dayton — where the league’s championship game will be played March 14 — will be a bumpy one.
When: For the first time since 2019, and by extension, maybe the first time since 1977.
With the 2020 tournament serving as an extreme aberration (and opportunity missed), Duquesne is still 0-2 in the conference tournament under Dambrot. Assuredly, Dambrot does not want to enter Year 5 on the job still winless in the conference tournament.
For more reasons than a few, a win over Richmond on Thursday would be ginormous for Duquesne.
Where: Richmond, but the game against the Spiders will be played at VCU’s Siegel Center.
The tournament is being co-hosted by the A-10’s two Richmond campuses, with games being played at both the Siegel Center and UR’s Robins Center from March 3-6.
The conference’s championship game will then be held March 14 at Dayton’s UD Arena.
Why: Why is the A-10 playing its tournament in two separate states? Good question. Beats me.