Walking on to the NCAA Tournament

Brentaro Yamane | Multimedia Editor | In a two-month span, Jake DiMichele went from an unknown walk-on to starting games in the NCAA Tournament. He did so as the first Pittsburgh native to star for Duquesne in a decade.

Spencer Thomas | Sports Editor

Duquesne basketball guard Jimmy Clark III remembers the first time he saw Jake DiMichele play. It was the first practice of the season, and Clark noticed that one of the freshman walk-ons wasn’t a typical benchwarmer. He was unafraid to take chances, and every time he put up a shot with his unique shooting motion, the ball went in.

Clark said he looked around and asked who this kid was. He was shocked to find out that the true freshman holding his own with fifth-year seniors was a walk-on.

“I’m like, y’all better watch out, he’s going to play this year,” Clark said. “I was saying that jokingly, but I was kind of serious.”

Even in that moment, neither Clark nor anyone else in the program imagined that DiMichele wouldn’t just play but start and star for the most successful Duquesne basketball team in 50 years.

The fact that DiMichele was even on the court without a scholarship was his best-case scenario. Even after he won four state championships and averaged nearly 32 points per game in his senior year of high school, DiMichele spent a year at prep school in Washington, Pa. Still, he never got a scholarship offer from a Division-I program. DiMichele had resigned himself to playing Division-II ball at IUP on a full scholarship, even going so far as having a conversation with his parents to announce he was ready to commit.

The next day, Duquesne came calling. The walk-on opportunity from then-Duquesne Head Coach Keith Dambrot opened the door for DiMichele to stay in Pittsburgh, and he didn’t think twice.

“This is where I want to be,” DiMichele said to his parents. “Let’s do anything we can to make it happen.”

When somebody says an athlete ‘bet on himself’, that is usually a meaningless trope. In DiMichele’s case, it was very literal. He chose to pay full tuition just to have a shot at suiting up in red and blue. He said that he carried that determination with him into those first open gyms of the summer where he shocked his teammates.

“I think that’s when they realized that I could play,” he said. “I know for myself that I’ve had confidence since I was a young kid.”

Dambrot said that once DiMichele hit the court, he overrode everyone’s initial assessment of him.

“Well, first off, he’s a quiet guy,” Dambrot said. “When you’re unassuming like him, and you go out there and compete every minute, guys respect you. You have to earn your respect in this business.”

As the season drew nearer, there were rumblings that one of the walk-ons was angling for some playing time. DiMichele said that Dambrot came to him with the news that he’d be a part of the rotation.

“This is your time,” DiMichele said to himself, “You’ve just got to make the most of it and have fun out there.”

He saw five minutes of action in the season opener, where he missed the only shot he took, and didn’t record a single significant stat until the fourth game of the season. His playing time didn’t reach double digits until January.

“I try to use a lot of things like a chip on my shoulder to instill competitiveness. I knew I’m coming in as a walk on, that just put an even bigger chip on my shoulder. Nobody really thought that I deserved a full scholarship anywhere,” he said. “Even if people consider me a walk-on or whatever, I know I could play at this level.”

Part of the low expectations laid on DiMichele come from his appearance. He stands 6-foot 4-inches but is wiry and has a scraggly beard that makes him look like a spitting image of the rapper Jack Harlow.

“Obviously, I lack some things athletically. I’m not the most athletic guy. I’m not the most coordinated guy, whatever it may be,” DiMichele said. “The way I look and stuff, people see me in the street and they’re not gonna think ‘this guy’s a basketball player.’”

Once the conference season started, however, DiMichele showed the rest of the world what his teammates saw last summer. He scored 12 points versus Dayton on national television, and then played as much as 30 minutes per game when star guard Dae Dae Grant was injured.

“I realized that I could kind of be that guy out there to catch the defense off guard a little bit,” he said. “Get some buckets, play hard defense. I just saw that I could fit in as a piece to the puzzle.”

“Can we get Jake DiMichele some freaking schoolbooks at least,” tweeted teammate Andy Barba.

It even exceeded his coaching staff’s expectations.

“It just tells you how inexact this science is,” Dambrot said. “We saw him play and we thought he was pretty good, but we probably didn’t think he’d play this soon.”

He put up a career-high 15 versus Fordham in late January, then matched it less than two weeks later versus Davidson.

His performances are never flashy or jaw-dropping. They’re the accumulation of hard-nosed plays that fit in perfectly to Dambrot’s style of ‘mud-wrestling’ basketball. It got him a black eye and puffy lip at the end of the regular season that Dambrot was keen to show off.

“It’s just being like a junkyard dog, DiMichele said. “Pitbulls you know, winning games like fights almost.”

DiMichele developed these traits growing up as one of the youngest boys in a competitive family. They’d go toe to toe in the backyard, where he usually ended up on his back. Nobody ever let him win.

That grew DiMichele into a player that walks around with a quiet but vigorous desire to prove himself.

“Competition is my favorite part of the game, going mano a mano against somebody else to see who is better. There’s nothing like that,” he said.

By the end of the season, DiMichele was a full-time starter for the Dukes. It was a significant accomplishment, not just for himself, but for the local community. A native of McKees Rocks, DiMichele is the first Pittsburgh native to see such a role at Duquesne since Micah Mason, nearly 10 years ago. It’s just another layer to this story meant for Hollywood.

He became a fan favorite of Yinzers who saw one of their own represent the city in front of them.

“Being able to see my family at every game and stuff and seeing how much joy and pride I’ve brought to the people closest to me, it means the world to me,” he said. “I hope that I can continue to keep going and keep making them prouder with every moment.”

Duquesne’s Cinderella run in March added another layer to the DiMichele legend, and it’s one that he doesn’t take lightly.

“Being a Western Pennsylvania guy, it means a lot to me,” he said. “I know going forward, even when I’m older, I’ll still get recognized for that accomplishment and helping bring Duquesne back to the tournament.”

DiMichele will surely receive a full scholarship in the coming months, a long-awaited reward at the end of his years-long journey.

“You have to work hard at it,” DiMichele said. “Being competitive, being tough, working hard. It can take you places in life, for sure.”

“It’s a good success story,” Dambrot said. “It just goes to show you that it’s the best players play, regardless of what their name is, what their status is, where they’re from.

“He’s earned every minute he’s got.”