I don’t want to sound pessimistic, but I have concerns about the immediate success anticipated by Duquesne fans during Keith Dambrot’s early years. Sure, I said they might be better from day one than some may have thought even before the recruiting class took shape, but if you just read the headline and not the concluding paragraph here it is.
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.
In other words, I don’t think they’ll be pushovers, but I’m not looking for CBI let alone the NIT. This isn’t to say that I don’t think Dambrot is the man. I like him a lot. I like his philosophy, the culture he’s establishing and the players he’s brought in his first recruiting class. I was beating his drum during the last coaching search and I’d have beaten it again this time around if I thought hiring him resembled a realistic option. However, if we’re setting the expectation that he turns the program around in years one and two and making judgments based on what he does in these first two seasons, we’re ignoring history, the current roster situation and setting him up for the same failure that’s befallen all the other coaches who’ve come before him.
Here’s the thing. Dambrot has nothing to prove about his ability to coach or establish a consistent team playing at a high level. You could have moved his Akron team to the A-10 and they would have performed quite well. His run of twenty win seasons puts him in elite company even if it came at the mid-major level. He’s one of the most underrated coaches in the country mostly because of where he coached, not how he coached. I have little doubt that he can succeed anywhere and he will succeed at Duquesne. However, there’s no magic wand to wave at the situation that will make the Dukes an instant winner. If we forget that Dambrot went to Akron and not Hogwarts, then we might give up on him way too soon, even though his resume clearly should allow for near unlimited patience and benefit of the doubt. Dambrot is a winner and he’ll get there eventually.
Immediate turnaround for the coaches that take over for someone fired is possible, but it’s not the most likely outcome either. Lost somewhere in cyber space (thanks Fansided!) is a piece I did during Jim Ferry’s first season about how long it takes for coaches to turn a program around. In the sample I looked at with first year coaches between 2007-12, they combined for a .380 winning percentage their first year. Only about 20% of the 188 coaches (yes 188) hired after any coach got the axe during that stretch managed a winning record in year one and only 13 total managed 20 wins. One was named John Calipari. In year two, the winning percentage increases to .437, but it didn’t surpass .500 for the sample until year 5.
That piece pretty much fell on deaf ears and ultimately people panicked on Ferry by the middle of his second season. Not suggesting these folks ended up being wrong, but they didn’t have a big enough sample size to come to that conclusion. If Dambrot falters before the calendar reads 2019, we’d be making a huge mistake lumping him in that category.
Team construction might also hamper Duquesne in year one under Dambrot. The roster has some bright spots returning from a 10 win team, the most obvious being combo guard Mike Lewis II. Fans also should not sleep on Tarin Smith. Eric James and Jordan Robinson could round out a mostly veteran starting lineup. I won’t even begin to guess who starts at the four. The issue I see is depth. The Dukes will only have four bench spots as four of the thirteen scholarships will be occupied by D-I transfer players. Granted, they’ll also presumably have preferred walk-on and two sport athlete Kellon Taylor, Jr. on the bench, but he won’t be there to start the season. Injury is almost not an option.
Not to suggest now isn’t important but this team is composed for the future. Not only did Dambrot add four ineligible players, he only added one transfer from the JUCO ranks and no grad transfers. The roster says 2018-19 and screams 2019-20. Year one will be successful if a culture is established and some players from the class of 2017 show that they can provide a foundation to build around. The record should be secondary to process. In year two, we could see some baby steps forward, but consider that the team will mix in four transfers who will likely play fairly large roles. There will be some game day rust and minimal chemistry. I think we can begin to expect improvement in Dambrot’s second season, but I think year three on paper looks like something of a breakout. That still puts the new staff ahead of the overall curve on average, but it also gives them some flexibility in case things don’t go perfectly.
Dambrot does have an advantage of having some solid players like Lewis and Smith on the roster and with multiple years of eligibility. Having those two increases the likelihood of a quick turnaround, but they don’t guarantee it. The vast majority of coaches struggle after taking over for the fired, really at a 4 to 1 rate. The future pieces of the program likely won’t be allowed to do anything but practice next year. This year’s team has the potential to be better than maybe we thought, but they still lost a lot of talent and have a ton of new pieces to put together. Everyone wants to see results as soon as possible but should take the approach of patience with Dambrot based on his previous success, realities of program development and scholarship distribution.