WASHINGTON D.C. — When Keith Dambrot took the podium Thursday night following Duquesne’s season-ending 81-68 loss to Richmond, he didn’t try to mask his disappointment.
When he said, “I’m not used to sitting in this chair being knocked out in the first round,” he wasn’t kidding.
Dambrot hadn’t faced a first round conference tournament exit in 26 years — which was his first season as a head coach at Central Michigan. He won at least one postseason game in each of his 13 seasons at Akron, which included three MAC Tournament championships and subsequent trips to the NCAA Tournament. When asked how he felt his first trip to the A10 Tournament compared to his past experiences with Akron at the MAC Tournament, Dambrot joked:
“This tournament stinks, because I’m used to playing in the championship game.”
Duquesne surpassed virtually everyone’s expectations in Dambrot’s first season in Pittsburgh. The Dukes were picked to finish dead last in the A10 preseason poll: the same place they finished in Jim Ferry’s final season last year. Dambrot’s squad not only more than doubled it’s conference-win total from the previous year, but also finished tied for 10th in the A10. From an outsiders perspective, it’d be safe to assume most coaches would be satisfied with this rate of progress after one year. But Keith Dambrot isn’t most coaches.
I wrote in January that Duquesne was not the proverbial doormat it had been over the last several years. The Dukes found themselves lurking near the top of the A10 through after starting 5-2 in league play. They even worked their way up to No. 26 two weeks in a row in the all-powerful Mid-Major Madness power rankings. Then the wheels fell off.
Thursday’s game against Richmond marked the eighth time in the last nine games that Duquesne found itself in the loss column. Perhaps it was an inevitable regression to the mean, and it was only a matter of time before the other shoe dropped. Dambrot didn’t pull any punches when asked to reflect on the last month.
“First and foremost, just so we’re clear on this, I’m competitive, so I’m not very happy,” Dambrot said, “I didn’t really like the way we played at all. I hated the last month, but I also signed up for it.”
Dambrot lived out the words of former Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey by “never surrender[ing] opportunity for security.” Dambrot lived out those words when he walked away from an Akron team that was coming off back-to-back conference championships for a Duquesne program that hadn’t even finished in the top half of its league since 2011.
Dambrot knew that moving to the A10 gave him a much better chance to compete nationally. The MAC is a one-bid league, while the A10 regularly gets three or four teams into the NCAA Tournament. The ceiling at Duquesne is much higher than it is at Akron. But, as Dambrot found out this year, the floor is also much lower.
It will be an uphill climb for Dambrot at Duquesne, but he feels he is up to the task, “I’m not an architect, but that’s pretty much what I am right now. I have to build this program for the future. We made some baby steps this year.”
Duquesne’s season is over, but make no mistake about it, Dambrot doesn’t intend to stay in the cellar for long. Duquesne brings back three of its four leading scorers in Mike Lewis, Eric Williams and Tarin Smith. The returning talent coupled with the Dukes’ first top-100 recruiting class in five years open the door for Dambrot’s second season in Pittsburgh to be special.
With this in mind, Duquesne fans should not get used to first round exits.