Following Duquesne’s win over Dayton on New Year’s Eve Eve, I noticed that all arrows of credit for the win pointed towards first year coach Keith Dambrot. In a sense, I understand that he’s the most visible change from this year to last, so it’s only natural to focus on him. Still, he didn’t dive on the floor, tough it out down the stretch, or believe that he could win on the court during the game. I thought the players were being short changed. Of course, Dambrot likely instilled those X-factors in his team and while I’d like to (and will) give the players their due, Dambrot has them playing beyond a reasonable expectations. The Dambrocess has lifted the players beyond their expected abilities, while still giving a lot of credit to the players themselves.
It’s hard to conclude anything, but Dambrot is the difference maker even when you’re trying to find an alternative explanation as I was. Keep in mind, I meant no ill will in attempting to do so. However, I always have believed that in the end, talented players who fit a system and have experience make the program as much as the guy at the helm. Based on post game comments, I don’t think Dambrot would argue against me, but impact can come from a coach taking his tact. First and foremost, he has the right philosophy. It’s easier to build a program with defense than it is with pure offense or even a balance of the two. He also shifted the culture to value toughness and competitiveness, regardless of situation, through positive beliefs and building of self-confidence. Most crucially, in my opinion, he is a manager as much as a coach. He understands how to get the most out of his players and how they need to be managed.
There was no better example of how he managed than at the 5:47 mark of the second half. Dayton called time out after Mike Lewis II missed a three pointer that would have extended Duquesne’s lead to six. As Lewis approached the bench, he looked sullen and defeated. His coach embraced him and said something in his ear. He immediately perked up as he entered the huddle. From my vantage I couldn’t fully tell if Dambrot’s timeout pep talk after his chat with Lewis was angry or excited. Whatever emotion he felt at the time, he genuinely demonstrated it in an animated flurry of whirling hand gestures and reddening complexion. While the team allowed four points and briefly conceded the lead for the final time on the next two Dayton possessions, the message of that time out clearly hit its mark. Lewis left the timeout smiling, clapping and encouraging his teammates, a 180 degree turn from how he walked over. Credit to the coach for helping to change his players disposition, as I’ve never noticed a Duquesne coach flipping a player like that in my time around the program. Credit also to Lewis for being mature enough to accept the message.
Preseason expectations often times are based on one thing — known commodities. Ken Pomeroy and his algorithm does not account for culture and philosophy. Coaches in preseason polls tend to perpetuate the status quo. Bloggers and media types don’t always take risks to avoid drawing ire later. Talent and history win in October, but almost universally some team in the Atlantic 10 drastically surpasses their preseason lot and it’s almost impossible to predict.
Knowing that, you can’t blame anyone for doubting Duquesne. If we want to be completely honest, prognosticators made the best guess they could based on limited information to assume the Dukes might struggle. The known commodities were lacking. Three starters were gone from a ten win team. Most returning veteran players had relatively little experience. Some underachieved previously.
However, we know a lot more about this team and while it still has opportunities for growth, we can see that it’s better than previous reasonable expectations. They’ve gone from a near-consensus last place team preseason to having the potential to rise quickly in a down Atlantic 10. According to Team Rankings projections, Duquesne has a better chance of finishing in the top 5 (10.5%) than they do of finishing in last place (7.4%). They also think the Dukes have a better chance of playing in the conference semifinals (8.4%) than finishing in the cellar. Obviously, there is a long way to go, but those expectations are a far cry from where they started.
Lewis has given Duquesne roughly what they expected from him, a fringe All-Conference performance. He’s currently 13th in the league in scoring, 3rd in offensive efficiency according to Sports Reference, 2nd in FT% and is 10th in 3P% among players averaging more than three attempts per game. The rest of the returning Jim Ferry players really hadn’t built much of resume prior to this season. Only Eric James logged more than 1000 minutes before unexpectedly being tethered to the bench last season. To suggest that they’ve exceeded expectations is an understatement, as Rene Castro-Caneddy and Tarin Smith give Duquesne three players in the top 10 in league offensive efficiency. However, they were unknown or had previously underachieved and both still have room to grow. While true 1’s have gone the way of the woolly mammoth, both Smith and Castro still set up their own shot better than they do others. Jordan Robinson has become the best scoring presence in the post though I’d love to see more of him. Still, those four along with complete unknown freshman sensation Eric Williams, Jr. have done enough to give the Dukes a passable offense.
The rest of the crew haven’t done anything flashy on offense, but as role players, they’ve created the foundation for good defense and rebounding. Tydus Verhoeven leads the league in blocks despite not playing enough minutes to qualify to be ranked for block%. Think about that! If he qualified, he’d also be the league’s 5th most efficient defender, two spots behind fellow frosh Williams, Jr. Chas Brown, though still injured, has provided a great help on the boards when he’s played. Kellon Taylor averages more rebounds than points.
On paper, these Dukes looked like a bottom four A-10 team coming into the season. Keith Dambrot has managed these players to believe that they’re capable of reaching a new level . They only have four very capable offensive players with only limited post options. Still they managed to post 10 wins thanks to a philosophical shift towards defense. They’ve found a couple of surprises like Verhoeven and Williams, but they’ve garnered some surprisingly clutch performances too. Take away the final five minutes of games this season. Is Mike Lewis II still the 3rd most offensive efficient player in the Atlantic 10? While credit is due to the players, credit is due to the manager for instilling a culture of toughness, belief and desire. In the end, Dambrot is getting more out of his team than most thought possible simply looking at the component parts preseason.