Around this time of year, I used to write pieces about when Duquesne fans should expect their first verbal commitment for the following season’s incoming class. I usually said sometime around the end of the September to the middle of October. This time around, they had their open scholarship allotment for 2018 accounted for by the end of August and next year, the piece will likely be about how soon the Dukes will be over thirteen scholarships for the 2019 class. Keith Dambrot hit the ground running on the recruiting trail after Duquesne hired him and it seems like he and his staff didn’t stop all summer. Now he has two openings and three players to fill them.
It’s not just how many commits Dambrot has or how early he received their commitment. It’s how big they are that’s the most intriguing. Quick aside, I’m not one of those old school basketball fans that thinks a big guy needs to touch the ball inside on every possession before a shot goes up. I don’t ever remember watching a basketball game where there was no three point line. Hell, I’m not even sure I feel like a big guy in the traditional sense of the word is even an necessary component of a good basketball team anymore, especially not in today’s A-10. The class of 2018 is huge though and it has me very intrigued.
As Dambrot is building a bigger core, the rest of the league is getting smaller. Last year, the average Atlantic 10 team had a primary center with a head height of 80.6 (6′-8.6″) inches and 78.6 (6′-6.5″) inches at power forward. If you go back ten years to ’06-’07, both post positions are roughly a half an inch shorter Only one team last year, Davidson, started a player at 6′-11.” There were as many 6’4” power forwards in four guard sets as there were starters listed at 6′-10″ — two each. Ten years ago, no one’s primary center was shorter than 6′-8” , while last year four teams started one. The Dukes class of 2018 averages 81.7″, a full inch taller than last year’s league average at center, with players who project to play the four mixed in. Add those three into the mix of with 6′-9” Akron transfer Michael Hughes and 6′-8” Tydus Vohoeven already on the Bluff and the Dukes look huge relative to their conference mates in 2018.
The Top 6 basketball conferences are still playing a little larger than A-10, but not as large as one might think. Once know for its bruising inside play and the overall conference grit and toughness, the Big East now looks more like the A-10 in terms of its team construction. Centers in last year’s Big East were less than a 0.1 inch taller than the average A-10 five and power forwards were less than a half and inch taller in the Big East. The difference is a little more stark when you get to the Big 12 and the ACC, but there were only three starters in those conferences seven feet or taller. The 06′-07′ Big East had as many by itself and the majority of schools had at least one guy taller than 6’10” in the lineup.
So there are a few things Dambrot might be doing here. The first possibility is he’s exploiting a market inefficiency. Spread offenses have become pervasive in college basketball with the basic idea being to build a lineup full of players with ability to play the perimeter who can both shot from distance or break down the defenders one on one. This prevents opponents from packing in the paint with a center who up till now rarely needed to respect his opposite number beyond the three point line. Today, bigs not only need to play the perimeter on offense, but they need to be athletic enough to extend their defense and cover 20 feet from the basket rather than an 8 foot semi circle underneath it. This means that there is less demand for traditional, back to the basket post players. Guys who may have committed early to a mid level Power 5 or Big East school ten years ago are sitting on the board for Duquesne to sweep in for in August and September, ala Dylan Swingle. Those players are still out there and if Dambrot is systematically targeting them and has some idea of how to use them to beat the spread, that is exciting.
The second thing he might be doing is playing beyond the Atlantic 10 season and assembling a team that can exploit a conference opponent’s weakness inside, while also building towards matching up better with the rest of college basketball in the post season. In other words, he’s building a team that could handle Power 5 size and make a run in the NCAA tournament or NIT when they get there. Some might see this as putting the cart before the horse, but I and others might see it as starting with an ambitious plan from day one. It’s hard to fault anyone for doing that approach.
Finally, Dambrot could just be doing what Dambrot always does because that’s what he does. You look at Akron year in and year out under Dambrot and they play considerably larger (and win more often) than their conference mates. This is fine since he has had plenty of success in a decent conference with big players. However, it is the one area that gives me some concern for Dambrot. Sure, he was able to leverage talented post players against lesser spread offenses in the MAC but will the old school approach translate successfully to a much better league? It might, but it is the one things that gives me concern with whether or not he will take the Dukes to the next level. I would feel much better knowing he was exploiting a gap in the market or dreaming big by playing big, rather than an old coach who might just be playing outmoded basketball.
Regardless, the Dukes will get big fast under Dambrot. By his second season on the job, they’ll have the biggest team in the Atlantic 10 and likely, but without checking, one of the biggest team outside of the top six conferences. It could help them in the wins column, but there is a reason coaches have gotten away from just playing huge — the spread offense. If Dambrot has a plan to find loaves of bread where lower level A-10 schools only used to find crumbs or he’s trying to run with the big dogs after the regular season ends, that’s excellent. If he’s just playing the same outdated basketball, and playing it against higher level competition, I have some concern.