By Kevin Sweeney
In many ways, the UMass and Duquesne basketball programs are in the same place right now.
In other ways, they couldn’t be more different.
The UMass program is one with tradition, just 20 years removed from being a perennial top 25 team in John Calipari’s tenure as head coach, an era capped by a Final Four trip in 1996. Duquesne on the other hand has always been little brother in its own city to mighty Pitt, without an NCAA Tournament appearance in the last 40 years and owning just two 20-win seasons in that timeframe.
Yet both programs reached a crossroads this offseason, having to make coaching hires that would have a lasting impact on the uncertain futures of their programs. UMass chose the young Matt McCall, a 36-year-old with just 2 years of head coaching experience but an already-impressive resume from his time working his way up the coaching ladder at Florida under Billy Donovan. Meanwhile, Duquesne lured 59-year-old Keith Dambrot, old enough to be McCall’s father, from Akron to turn around their program. With more than 400 career wins to his name and the endorsement of LeBron James, Dambrot appeared a slam dunk to turn around the struggling Duquesne program.
Now, less than 10 months since taking over, both programs are in significantly better shape than they have been in quite a while. How? Despite their obvious differences, both McCall and Dambrot have employed similar strategies to bring their programs to relevance in such short amounts of time.
Carl Pierre and Eric Williams Jr. might be the two best freshmen in the Atlantic Ten. They certainly are two of the most important.
Neither had a Division 1 offer at the conclusion of their senior season of high school basketball. Neither may be playing Division 1 basketball right now if not for the coaching changes that put McCall and Dambrot at the helm of their respective programs.
Pierre was leaning towards a year of prep school despite an outstanding career at BC High in Boston until McCall came calling. After seeing 7 players transfer out of the program following Derek Kellogg’s firing, McCall needed players who could contribute right away and fit the culture he was trying to build. The 6-4 sharpshooter known as an extremely hard worker and a gym rat was perfect for what McCall was looking to build. Now, Pierre is averaging more than 10 points per game and leads the A10 in 3-point percentage, and every time he plays it becomes harder and harder to fathom how he was available by the time McCall came calling in May.
Eric Williams put up excellent numbers and helped lead his team to a state championship in Michigan. Yet he didn’t receive his first Division 1 offer until April. He had developed a relationship with current Duquesne assistant Charles Thomas when he was with Dambrot at Akron, but it was far from a guarantee that Dambrot’s staff would have a scholarship available for Williams. But once at Duquesne, Dambrot had plenty of scholarships to work with, and after visiting campus, Williams was offered and committed to the Dukes. He’s currently averaging 14.2 ppg and 9.7 rpg and continues to impress with his composure for a freshman getting his first taste of Division 1 basketball. Williams is the type of kid that won Dambrot so many games at Akron, a hard worker who would take coaching and develop over 4 years into all-conference players.
While McCall and Dambrot each wanted to win right away, it would have been unrealistic to try to find enough immediately eligible talent to compete in the A10 given how late a start each got in building their rosters. Instead, the two programs cornered the market on transfers, with McCall bringing in 5 D1 transfers and Dambrot bringing in 6. Just two of those 11 combined were immediately eligible graduate transfers, and one of those, Jaylen Brantley of UMass, was unable to ever suit up for the Minutemen after a heart condition was discovered that ended his career. However, these sit-out transfers, who come from programs as large as Memphis, LSU, and Rutgers and as small as Miami (OH) and Akron, will provide massive talent injections to these two programs in 2018-19.
Changing the Culture
At UMass, McCall inherited a roster made up of some highly-regarded recruits, but the culture surrounding that program was a mess. The team reportedly had some major chemistry issues, and fans rued the team’s disorganization in-game. While several of those talented pieces followed Kellogg out the door, that allowed McCall to change the vibe around the program immediately. Now, the team plays with a discipline and organization not seen in the Kellogg era. A perfect example of this is how McCall handled sophomore forward Chris Baldwin. Baldwin was benched in the Minutemen’s loss to South Carolina after playing a key role early in the season, and after the game, McCall criticized Baldwin’s approach. With just 8 scholarship players at his disposal, McCall could have easily continued to play Baldwin, but he chose to bench the sophomore and establish the culture he wants for the program. Baldwin has worked his way back into McCall’s good graces and played a key role in his team’s upset win over Georgia.
Meanwhile, one of the biggest and most consistent winners in college basketball inherited a program that hadn’t seen many victories in recent years.
“I’m trying to make them understand how to win,” Dambrot said in November, per an article in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “When it’s 70-68 with three minutes to play, are they going to believe they can win or not? That’s going to be the key to the whole thing, because in the past they haven’t.
After struggling in close games early in the season, the Dukes have won 3 consecutive games decided by less than 10 points. That includes knocking off perennial A10 power Dayton 70-62 on Saturday in a game that the Dukes trailed 61-60 with less than 5 minutes to play. Simply put, Duquesne didn’t win those types of games under previous coaches.
A big part of that was getting all-A10 freshman Mike Lewis to buy into what Dambrot was selling, convincing him to stay at Duquesne and lead the program into the future. Lewis has thrived, averaging over 16 points per game, and the Dukes have improved on the defensive end, an area where Dambrot’s Akron teams always thrived.
It is commonly said that recruiting is the lifeblood of any college basketball program, and both McCall and Dambrot have put together dynamite classes that fit their program’s needs in 2018. UMass has 2 commits, landing top-150 wing Samba Diallo and 3-star point guard Tre’ Wood. Both are high-level talents and come from talent-rich areas, with Diallo coming from the metro New York area and Wood coming from Baltimore. Duquesne has already landed 5 commitments, including 4 of whom who stand 6-9 or taller. With Dambrot a coach who loves to play through the post with dominant big men, this is exactly the class Dambrot needed to build.
The future has been bright at both of these programs since the day their new coaches were hired, but the early success each coach has had gives me reason to believe UMass and Duquesne will be competing for Atlantic Ten titles sooner rather than later.