I want to make one thing clear from the start — I’m getting way ahead of myself with this post. After all, the Dukes have six out of their thirteen scholarships slots locked up for sure on their roster as I write this with: a Jim Ferry recruit still in letter of intent limbo, a former Akron point guard who tweeted that he’s on his way as a transfer, and a preferred walk-on football player. Much could change before this piece sees the light of day, but I’m OK with not making any changes even if it does, as it still frames just how premature my frame of reference is. There is a long way to go, but I can’t say I’m in complete despair for the Dukes 2017-18 season.
This is, of course, a stark contrast to how I felt just ten days ago. Coaches rejected the school left and right and players fled as if the AJ Palumbo Center caught fire. Ultimately, the Dukes got the coach with the best resume of anyone they pursued and while four of the five players who asked for a release either from their scholarship or letters of intent departed, we can rest a little easier now that leading scorer and all-conference freshman guard Mike Lewis II has elected to return.
I also want to make it very clear that I’m not expecting the team next year to break the now forty year NCAA tournament slump. We need to manage expectations in the short run under Keith Dambrot. However, I do think they can avoid disaster and somehow build on last year’s ten win disappointment when single digits looked likely only a short time ago.
The first reason is simple — Keith Dambrot. While I don’t expect him to pump out 18 wins as he did his first year in Akron, he has made a career of getting the most out of players. There isn’t a long list of four-star recruits who have played under him and his list of three stars isn’t much longer. Of course, his list of twenty win seasons is considerably longer. He’s known for his player development and if he’s still got it, I’d expect the current crop of Duquesne players to get better. He has a distinct inside-out offense to go with his intense defense, but from his press conference, particularly his point about using the zone over his preferred man if it suits his players better, he has the flexibility to find what works for what he has as he transitions to his own recruits.
Experience matters in college basketball and for Dambrot he’s taking over a team that is at least a veteran one, even if the players haven’t accumulated a ton of playing time to this point. The Dukes have two fifth year seniors, a regular senior, a redshirt junior and guard in Lewis who played a lot as a freshman. The team’s three most efficient offensive players during conference play have all stuck around.
The first is the darling of many a grey haired Duquesne fan — Jordan Robinson. Robinson has always had advanced offensive skills and good hands around the basket for a big guy, but his rebounding and defense have kept him sidelined. There a few good signs for Robinson. Prior to his injury that kept him out of the final month, Robinson was beginning to appear to break out. His minutes were increasing and he had a real gem, maybe his best as a Duke, at home against Saint Louis. I think he’s a great breakout candidate for next season. Next, Dambrot really like thumpers inside which means Robinson might be able to add some weight and get closer to the number that he comfortable playing at. Finally, there aren’t any other options with experience now that Nakye Sanders has hit the bricks. Robinson will get his chance because has to get his chance. Let’s hope Dambrot and company can get him to play with more of an edge and improve his rebounding. If they can I think, he’s a real candidate for most improved player in the A-10.
The second is summer league darling Rene Castro. He arrived on the Bluff to much fanfare, but missed almost two full years of competitive basketball and really struggled during his sophomore year. He was the team’s best 3-point shooter and his assist percentage went way up. Like Robinson, he looked like he was finally coming into his own in conference play, which is particularly encouraging since Castro’s only double digit scoring outing prior to this year came against D-II Manchester while he played for Butler. Castro is a streak scorer and the coaching staff will need to help him overcome his consistency issues. He could be an excellent sixth man or a swing in a multiple guard set.
Last of the three is every Duquesne fan’s darling at the moment — Mike Lewis II. You can’t blame them after Lewis opted to stay, despite kicking the tires on the bus out of Pittsburgh and how he excelled in conference play in spite of poor win/loss performances. Lewis went off for twenty points in 7 of the team’s final 11 contests. What’s exciting about that is he did it by getting to the free throw line and not just by getting hot three point shooting. He’s a nice player and can anchor the team’s back court for three years giving them stability through the transition. At his side will be the Dukes other returning starter, Tarin Smith. I don’t think we’ve seen the best of Smith just yet and I think he could give the Dukes a lot more in his second go around. Mix in Castro and Spencer Littleson and the Dukes suddenly have some depth at the one and two.
Unfortunately, they also have a gaping hole at forward. Eric James could reprise his role as starting small forward, one from which he was surprisingly cast and banished deep on the bench following his sophomore season. I don’t understand the full season dog house treatment, as I though James played fairly well as a midseason replacement for Jeremiah Jones. He finishes well around the basket and was one of the better rebounders, pound for pound. On top of that he plays intense defense and may have the best disposition of any Duke to play hard over the entire court. Behind James at the moment is walk-on and football player Kellon Taylor, who won’t even join the team until his gridiron commitment ends. Thankfully, you can still find good small forwards this time of year. Power forwards are a little harder.
Again there is a long way to go, but unless Dambrot comes up with a JUCO to play the four it might make sense to try their luck with a four guard set. They have the experience and they have the depth at guard. It’s easier to find a few bench guards this time of year than an inside/outside, starting quality power forward. Could make sense to go outside of the box here.
Again, I don’t want to go crazy with expectations, but if the over or under is 10 wins again, I would take the over even now. That being said, I’d have to think very hard if you set that number at 12. Of course, adding two more wins during a rebuilding season will likely be a strong, though undesirable, result. I also don’t think they’re a lock to finish last in the A-10 as others have assumed. Lewis is a beast and I’m looking for sizable improvement from Jordan Robinson. They also have two players besides Lewis who have starting experience. This is a flawed team. However, they could exceed expectations, though I would caution not to expect them to exceed exceptions.