Undefeated and Without a Home Court, Duquesne Basketball Is Finding Its Way

Under the direction of coach Keith Dambrot, the Dukes are off to their best start in a half-century.
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The latest NCAA NET rankings say that the No. 20 team in the country has not played any road games thus far this season. Truth is, that team has not played any home games. Nor will it, all year.

Say hello to the Duquesne Dukes, undefeated and homeless.

Duquesne is 9-0 for the first time since 1968-69, one of the biggest surprise teams in an early season rife with unexpected developments. Duquesne also is playing zero games on its Pittsburgh campus, where the basketball arena is undergoing a major renovation and will reopen for the 2020-21 season.

Instead, the Dukes are vagabonds. They’re traveling between three arenas in the city for their home contests—PPG Paints Arena for six games, Robert Morris University for four and Division III La Roche University for four. It’s a 28-mile trek one way to Robert Morris and a 10-mile trip to La Roche; fortunately PPG Paints Arena is only a few blocks away.

The Dukes have also scheduled other “home” contests in Akron and Cleveland, where coach Keith Dambrot has roots dating to his time as LeBron James’ high school coach and years coaching the Akron Zips. And they’ve played three games in the Bahamas, with two more this weekend in St. Petersburg, Fla.

In addition to the lack of home games, there is no formal locker room. The coaches’ offices have been relocated to a building down the street. Practices are in the campus rec center—in the morning—and players are changing in an area that used to be a racquetball court. There are no showers, so players have to get back to their apartments or dorms before cleaning up after practice.

Athletic director Dave Harper described the process of cobbling together a schedule as “an exercise in Excel spreadsheets, with three people working on it. Fortunately, Keith’s attitude is kind of, ‘Anywhere, anytime, let’s go.’“

And so they went. And will keep going. While it’s technically true that Duquesne hasn’t yet played on anyone else’s home floor—and won’t until Jan. 8—it’s definitely not the case that the team hasn’t been on the road.

“It’s unique for a 61-year-old coach to be putting clothes in a suitcase every day,” Dambrot said. “But I’m kind of a spoiled 61-year-old.”

In truth, the native of Northeast Ohio is hardly spoiled. Other than the luxury of coaching LeBron when he was a freshman and sophomore at Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary’s, he’s taken jobs that didn’t come with a lot of advantages—Division II Tiffin and Ashland, Central Michigan, Akron for 13 highly-accomplished seasons and now … one of the least successful Division I programs of the last 40 years.

Duquesne’s last NCAA tournament bid came in 1977. Since then, the Dukes have had 30 losing seasons, four .500 seasons and nine winning seasons. Why, then, would a guy who had 12 straight 20-win seasons at Akron willingly move to what has been a coaching graveyard?

His father played for Duquesne during its better days, in the 1950s. But it was more than that—after having things on autopilot at Akron, Dambrot was ready for one final coaching challenge.

“I’m the only one dumb enough to leave my hometown and come take this job when I didn’t have to,” Dambrot said. “It was risky, but not really risky. If I was 41, I probably wouldn’t have come. But at 61, if I didn’t win, they wouldn’t say it’s me. They would just say, ‘That’s Duquesne, nobody wins there.’

“I’ve never had one of the top jobs, though. I’m used to fighting for what I get.”

Harper did his best to sell the place, offering upper-echelon Atlantic 10 funding in a number of areas. It still took a lot of convincing, but he got his man in 2017.

“I did everything but wrap a chain around his leg and drag him here,” Harper said. “I believed he was the right guy to handle all the challenges of Duquesne.”

A big part of the sell job was the arena, which will be named UPMC Cooper Fieldhouse in honor of Chuck Cooper, a Duquesne star who became one of three African-American players to break the NBA color barrier in 1950. Dambrot took the job knowing that there would be an arena, but not knowing when.

Turns out it will be Year 4 on the job. But the payoff looks like it’s coming a season early.

The Dukes have played modest competition thus far, nothing but fellow mid-major programs until starting A-10 play in January. Yet the results have been emphatic—not only have they won every game (one of just four remaining unbeatens in Division I), but they’ve won the last four by an average of 23 points. They will be solidly favored Saturday against Austin Peay and Sunday against UAB before wrapping up non-conference play against Marshall in Cleveland Dec. 29.

Duquesne’s current Ken Pomeroy rating is No. 59, highest since the program finished 55th in 2011. This is a veteran team but still with room to grow, with just one senior seeing significant action. The problem was, Dambrot wasn’t the only one who could see a potentially big season coming—with a lot of returning talent from a 19-win team, scheduling was even more difficult than just juggling arenas.

Harper said he tried to schedule several road games against Power 5 opponents. The result: “We got hung up on a lot.”

Among those who declined to play the Dukes: fellow Steel City school Pittsburgh. That ended a 50-year run of the two schools meeting at least once per season. While Dambrot and Harper were diplomatic in discussing the one-year interruption in the series, they made it clear that the decision was Pitt’s.

Second-year Panthers coach Jeff Capel said that since his team was playing Robert Morris in its new arena this season, it wouldn’t play Duquesne as well.

“That’s their decision, and I respect it,” Harper said.

The game is scheduled to return in 2020. But the future of the series is in doubt.

In the meantime, the Dukes have other battles to fight. Namely, remembering which arena they’re supposed to show up in on any given night for the next “home” game.

But it hasn’t stopped them from winning.

“I’ve had buyer’s remorse 100 times,” Dambrot said. “But no matter how it turns out, I’m glad I took the leap.”