The last time Duquesne wasn’t a spectator during the NCAA Tournament was way back when the Dukes shared the A-10 (then known as the Eastern Collegiate Basketball League) with Villanova, West Virginia and Pittsburgh, when Magic Johnson was still in high school, and when Jimmy Carter was sworn in as the President.
It’s been 42 years since the Dukes went dancing.
Well, Duquesne is now 9-0 and one of four undefeated teams remaining in the D-1 ranks, along with Auburn, San Diego State and Liberty. The Dukes were also ranked 20th when the NCAA released the first NET rankings of the season on Monday.
There has been a method to the madness for the plan to make Duquesne hoops relevant, and it starts with a financial commitment and creativity from coach Keith Dambrot and athletic director Dave Harper. That’s where the duo’s willingness to embrace buy games* comes into play.
*Buy Game: 1. Where a program basically pays another lower-level team to come to their home court in order to increase the probability of securing a victory. It’s also a way for the lower-tier program to make some money — usually in the neighborhood of $100,000 — while often taking on the role of a sacrificial lamb.
Princeton, Lamar, Lipscomb, VMI, Columbia and Radford were all straight buy games this season — matchups in which Duquesne paid each school’s expenses (flights, hotel, etc.) to play the Dukes. Duquesne also paid to play in the Junkanoo Jam down in the Bahamas, and forked over some cash to participate in this weekend’s St. Pete Shootout, where they will face Austin Peay and UAB.
Usually, buy games come on the program’s home court, but this season is different because the Dukes don’t have a home court. Duquesne’s arena is in the midst of a $55 million renovation, forcing the Dukes’ home games to be held at three different venues: PPG Paints Arena (which holds 19,000), Division III La Roche and Robert Morris University.
That makes the 9-0 start that much more impressive.
Harper estimates that the program tossed out about $850,000 last season and $750,000 this season in order to buy certain games that would help lead to victories. There are other teams in the A-10, and around the country, that are only able to buy one game due to financial limitations. The average for most high-major leagues is four or five.
The Dukes have quickly gained momentum under Dambrot, largely due to the non-conference schedule, going 16-16 in Dambrot’s first season and 19-13 a year ago. The improvement helped Dambrot and his staff ultimately land players that they couldn’t get involved with when he first took the job.
“When you build a program, you have to win,” Dambrot said.
Duquesne also gained confidence in the non-league which helped to a 10-8 A-10 finish — just the third time since 1981 that the program enjoyed a winning record in conference play.
“The first thing we had to do here was to change the image of the program,” Harper said. “We were considered a cellar dweller, and the only way to change it is to win games. In order to build it, this is what we needed to do.”
“It’s amazing how progressive Dave Harper was with everything,” Dambrot added. “He put his money where his mouth was and lived up to everything, and hopefully now he can reap the benefits because he took a lot of criticism in his search.”
Harper tried to convince VCU’s Mike Rhoades to come from Richmond. That didn’t work. Neither did trying to lure John Becker from Vermont. Finally, he persuaded Dambrot, the guy best known for coaching LeBron James in high school, to make the move a couple hours southeast from Akron.
“Keith wanted the job,” Harper said. “I just had to convince his wife. I told her it’s only an hour and 20 minutes from Akron, and she can keep the place on the lake.”
When Dambrot was first hired, people would constantly pronounce “Duquesne” wrong, and ask where his new school was located.
“I was cool with it. I know what I signed up for,” Dambrot said. “But I think we’re doing it the right way.”
Harper describes the plan as a four-step process:
1.) Change the image. Check.
2.) Compete in the A-10. The Dukes won 10 league games last season. Check.
3.) Finish in the top three of the league. Still to be determined.
4.) Advance in the NCAA Tournament.
“I think we can be in the mix this year for one of the top spots in the league. I really do,” Dambrot said.
Dambrot will bring back just about everyone from this year’s team, except for senior big man Baylee Steele, who Dambrot says has “changed the culture” and is the “hardest-working player I have ever coached, and that includes LeBron.”
But there is concern about retention, and rightfully so. The team is playing in front of sparse home crowds, and the history of keeping their best players leads to anxiety.
However, things are starting to change.
It’s now a program that has become nationally significant thanks to its undefeated start, and more importantly, relevant in the A-10 due to its talent, coaching and momentum entering league conference play.
“Winning is contagious,” Harper said.
Now the hope is that Duquesne won’t need to buy wins. At least not nearly as many.