SHARON – There was a time – pre-NCAA Tournament, when the NIT generally was regarded as much more prestigious – when Duquesne University was one of the country’s premier men’s basketball programs.
Keith Dambrot is determined to direct the Dukes of the present and future back to the good, old days of 20-win seasons and playing well into the month of March. And he’ll have help from someone who knows something of “March Madness,” at least at the scholastic level, in Maceo Austin.
Having helped key Kennedy Catholic High to 4 consecutive commonwealth crowns, Austin is one of Dambrot’s Duquesne recruits. A 6-foot-5 swing guard who scored almost 2,000 career scholastic points, Austin is armed with attributes admired by Dambrot.
Speaking from The Corinthian, site of Kennedy’s recent postseason awards banquet, Dambrot said, “I think the biggest thing about Maceo is, as good a player as he is he’s even a better person. All the great ones tend to have that high character. So we’re excited havin’ him. Obviously, the ultimate winner. You don’t win four state championships unless you care about winning.
“ ... He’s got four state championship rings, and I don’t know if there’s a man in the world that has that, I gotta give him credit for that,” quipped Dambrot regarding the short list of past PIAA competitors (Carlisle’s Billy Owens and Jeff Lebo and Kennedy Catholic’s Keenan Christiansen).”
Having previously recruited Shenango’s Stephen McNees, Dambrot was drawn to Hermitage and Austin, and assessed, “We knew a lot about him early on ... we got to know him. I think the biggest thing about Maceo is he’s a jack-of-all-trades: He’s very good defensively, he can pass the ball, he can handle the ball, he can shoot the ball, he can drive, he’s long. He’s just a prototypical big wing that has some good ball-handling skills, as well.
“I think he’s my kind of guy. Very good defensively – which gives him a great chance (for immediate playing time) – and very team-oriented. So I’d be very surprised if he didn’t play right away,” Dambrot added.
This past season the Dukes demonstrated Dambrot’s desire for continued improvement. Duquesne ended 19-13 overall and 10-8 in the Atlantic 10 Conference (the program’s best since 2011), losing St. Joseph’s University (92-86) in the A-10 Tourney’s 2nd round.
“We’ve made progress,” Dambrot declared. “We took over a tough situation. We won sixteen games our first year; nineteen our second. ... We were the 349th youngest team in the country; there (were) only five younger than us. And I think the biggest thing about our team is, ironically, our best player – in my mind – is Sincere Carry, who’s also a western Pa. kid, although he played at Solon, Ohio. So we have pretty good point-guard play, we’ve got size, and pretty young.”
Dambrot and Duquesne date back decades to when his father, Sid, starred on the ‘Bluff from 1952-54.
Having had a successful stint at his alma mater Akron University (school-record 305 wins and the 3-time Mid-American Conference coach of the year), Dambrot’s Duquesne debut has produced 35 wins, the most in the program’s 103-year annals (16 coaching predecessors) in his first 2 seasons.
“I like it. I kind’ve had a little bit of knowledge of Duquesne ‘cause my dad played there – they were the best team in the country. They were great (4th in the 1952 Associated Press poll; 9th in 1953, and 5th in 1954, including 2 weeks at the top). So I always had an affinity for Duquesne,” related the diminutive Dambrot. “My number one affinity, obviously, is Akron, that’s where I’m from, where I went to school (Class of 1982, where he was a stellar baseball player). But when Duquesne came and gave me the opportunity to really take it up a notch, I just thought it was the right time to do it.
“My dad’s still alive, he’s eighty-eight years-old,” Dambrot continued, “I think he likes (the fact his son is coaching his alma mater), but he basically told me, ‘Do what’s best for your family.’ I just think the timing was right when we decided to make the move. Not an easy job, obviously – the last nine coaches have been fired. But I feel like the school’s really behind (the basketball program) now, once and for all.
“I’m excited about it! Look, I figured I’m not gonna work ‘til I’m seventy years-old, so I figured I’d give it one, last whirl and see how competitive I really was,” added Dambrot, whose coaching career commenced as an Akron U. assistant.
Ironically, while coaching Akron’s St. Vincent-St. Mary High, led by then sophomore LeBron James, the Irish and Dambrot defeated Kennedy (Christian) Catholic on a Sunday evening in 2001 at Akron University (51-50).
“ ... I was a head coach at 25 at an NAIA school (Tiffin, Ohio). I’ve coached a long time. Still like it, still have good energy,” Dambrot said, relating, “I think the move really helped with that. It kind’ve ‘re-juiced’ me. I’m excited about it, really. As long as I still feel good.”
The lone question for Dambrot is the status of Duquesne’s Palumbo Center, which is being renovated and will not be available for the 2019-20 season.
“It’ll be a conglomerate of playing at PPG (Paints Arena, home to the National Hockey League’s Pittsburgh Penguins, just across from Duquesne’s campus) ... and more games at neutral (sites) and on the road than we have in the past. We’re still gonna play ... the majority of our games are gonna be at home. If it isn’t (ready by 2020) they’re gonna be givin’ me another contract,” Dambrot quipped.
But whether playing at The Palumbo Center or elsewhere, it appears to be a promising partnership for Dambrot’s Dukes and Austin.