Dukes prepare for Thursday game day vs. BYU

Dylan Fister | staff photographer | Senior Tre Williams has been ruled out of Thursday's contest with an injury, but is still carrying good vibes into Omaha.

Spencer Thomas & Michael O’Grady | Sports Editor & Staff Writer

Updated 12:16 a.m. on March 21, 2024

OMAHA, NE— After a spirited send off from students and fans, Duquesne men’s basketball team touched down at Eppley Airfield in Omaha, Neb., on Tuesday evening. They went through a practice at Creighton University that night, before an open practice and media day on Wednesday. The quick turnaround culminates on Thursday morning, when they play six-seed Brigham Young University at 11:40 a.m. central time.

For Duquesne’s biggest game in almost 50 years, Head Coach Keith Dambrot emptied the arsenal. That includes traveling Joe Carr, a sports psychologist based out of Washington, D.C., that has worked with national championship teams from UConn and Georgetown. Dambrot first brought him in when at St. Vincent-St. Mary’s to provide extra support for young superstar LeBron James. Since then, Carr has worked with Dambrot’s teams several times each year, including after Duquesne’s 0-5 start in conference. He preached the importance of connectivity, something Jake DiMichele feels has increased the past couple days.

“It’s been kind of a whirlwind of emotions,” DiMichele said. “But I think it works for us in a positive way because it just bonds us closer together.”

Players talked about their busy week, which started with the send-off.

“I think it’s been a great and exciting experience, as well as emotional, because not many of us have been here in this position,” said Senior Guard Dae Dae Grant. “It’s very exciting and mind-blowing to me right now.”

Part of the current excitement and emotions surrounding the team are because Dambrot is in the final days of his career after announcing his retirement. Dambrot said that he wanted to make the most out of it, both from a basketball standpoint and a personal one too.

“I’ve had a whirlwind of emotions, but I looked around the arena many, many times, which I hardly ever do or have ever done,” he said. “I think when you go through some hard times, you start to change your perspective as to what’s important and what isn’t important.”

The normally high-strung Dambrot said it was still a normal week for him, but he admitted his normal preparation could be coupled with some enjoyment.

“We put in our hard work on a daily basis, and now it’s time to enjoy the moment, which I haven’t done a very good job of throughout my career,” he said. “A lot of times in this business the lows outweigh the highs. All I’ve tried to do now is try to enjoy the highs and not worry about the lows.”

Despite this, Duquesne’s practice at CHI Health Arena was visibly tenser than some held by other teams in Omaha. There were lots of smiles and hugs, but an ever-present respect for how they got there.

“We do deserve this moment,” Grant said. “Although I feel like the process of us accomplishing that championship and getting here is not the end. It is what built us, our program and our team throughout these two years to become what we are right now.”

Where they are right now is pitted against an unfamiliar opponent in the BYU Cougars. Ranked No. 20 in the latest AP Poll, BYU was as high as 12th on New Year’s Day and finished 23-10 in their first season as members of the Big-12 Conference, by far the strongest league in the nation. The only reason they dropped to a six-seed was because their original slot as the top fifth-seed would have tracked them to play on Sunday, which goes against their religious policy. In the regular season, they won four games against other ranked teams, including against last year’s national championship finalist San Diego State, and they were the only team to beat Kansas in Allen Fieldhouse. The Cougars didn’t go far in the Big-12 Tournament, however, losing 81-67 to Texas Tech in the quarterfinals.

BYU has a high-flying offense that shoots a ton of 3-pointers. The Cougars are tied for the most 3-point attempts in Division I and have made the third-most number of 3-point baskets, but they are 133rd in percent made. As a result, they don’t shoot many free throws, leaving them dependent on their shooting. They rebound well, and succeed while shooting worse than their opponent by the sheer volume of 3’s they attempt and their relentless pace.

That pace is the biggest difference between the two sides. Duquesne tries to operate at a slow and steady rate while BYU is more comfortable in a contest that looks more like a track meet than a basketball game.

“It’s kind of a game of contrasting styles,” DiMichele said. “They’re a very up-tempo team. They like to score the ball at a high rate … I feel like the key to the game is trying to get them to play our style and not fall into their style of play.”

6-foot 7-inch guard Jaxson Robinson is not their most prolific shooter, but takes more shots than everyone else. The key is to make sure guard Trevin Knell and forward Noah Waterman don’t make their shots so Duquesne will need to stretch their defense out with the likes of Jimmy Clark III and Jakub Necas, who has excelled with such tasks as the season goes on.

If BYU goes cold or finds Duquesne’s perimeter defense overwhelming, they can use the size of Waterman or Fousseyni Traore to push for points in the paint, as injuries have left chunks of their backcourt questionable. Duquesne’s defensive depth allows Dambrot a wide array of options to figure out what works in the paint. That could be mobility in Andrei Savrasov and Dave Dixon, or the size and force of Dusan Mahorcic.

If Duquesne pulls off the upset, they’ll play the winner of the game between Illinois and Morehead State on Saturday.