The Duquesne Dukes are one of the biggest surprises in both the Atlantic 10 and nationally. Here’s why the team has been so good, on and off the court.
Seventeen straight losses. That was how Duquesne ended their 2021-22 season. It was the first losing season for Head Coach Keith Dambrot at any level since 1993, a full four years before his oldest player was even born. But it was all too familiar for a Duquesne program that has had a lot more valleys than peaks over that same 30-year period. His coaching history said that Dambrot would be able to turn things around but the program’s history pointed towards another rough season. The Atlantic 10 preseason poll agreed with the latter, and the Dukes were picked dead last.
Four months later, Duquesne is 18-8 overall and sitting in 5th place in the conference, just one game back of the coveted double-bye into the quarterfinals of the A-10 tournament.
The transfer portal can accelerate even the bleakest of rebuilds and Duquesne used it to their advantage, adding a C-USA all-conference player (Tevin Brewer), two double-digit scorers in the MAC (Dae Dae Grant, Joe Reece), a junior college All-American (Quincy McGriff) and a national champion at the same level (Tre Clark). This team certainly isn’t lacking talent but neither was last year’s unsuccessful outfit (Primo Spears is Top 10 in the Big East in points AND assists, Leon Ayers III is outscoring Reece’s output at Bowling Green and Toby Okani is averaging 11.5 ppg, and 7.5 rpg for UIC).
The biggest difference is an unignorable change in team fit and chemistry, as this season’s Dukes roster is filled with players with versatile skillsets and the flexibility to shuffle positions and roles. Perhaps even more important, the camaraderie and positive energy that this team brings to the floor has never wavered, and Duquesne’s uncanny ability to hit first-half buzzer beaters (all the while avoiding them defensively on the exact same rim) typically results in some of the most fired up charges to the locker room you will ever see in regular season games.
So how does a team with ten new players walk into a season with such jubilation and affinity for their teammates? That story starts with an undersized freshman who possesses the intensity of a lion and the confidence of a superstar.
The rumors were already swirling in September, that 5’9″ freshman Kareem Rozier was making his mark as a vocal young player and Dambrot confirmed as much when we spoke in the preseason, “The reason that we liked him so much is that he is probably one of the best leaders I’ve ever seen when we went to see him play in both AAU and in high school. And so he immediately came here and has taken over the team.” And he continued on to say, “The older guys love him and listen to him.” That was the very first thing Dambrot said when I brought up Rozier before he had ever even played a minute in a college basketball game.
That leadership has been front and center all season in the little moments, Rozier always being the first guy off the bench to hype up his teammates during a timeout or Dambrot throwing in press conference comments on the importance of his vocal role. But the moment that really showed the strength of their relationship came after a rough home loss to Fordham. Duquesne doesn’t send players to the media after losses, as Associate Head Coach Dru Joyce II replaces the typical Player of the Game interview on the radio and Dambrot does the only press conference. But on this night, he brought Rozier with him and the nineteen-year-old sat there and joined his coach in shouldering the responsibility for the loss, even though he played just 14 minutes.
That particular night fits the narrative for someone who has been focused on setting a great example from a young age. “Right about sixth grade he really started to understand, that it’s not enough to just cut into guys when they weren’t playing hard or if they weren’t doing the right thing but also being able to build them up. If they made a mistake, you’re gonna need these guys down the line, throughout the game, so we need you to build them up and give them confidence. That’s where he started to see his impact with other guys being willing to work hard to ultimately get the win.” said his father, Elijah Rozier, who started to instill principles of leadership with his son as far back as elementary school.
Duquesne Assistant Coach Charles Thomas saw this immediately during his first time seeing Rozier as an eighth grader, playing with eventual five-star recruit Emoni Bates, on a recruiting trip, “The way I saw him get up in Emoni’s face and really give him some direction and not back down from him, I said this little kid is gonna be special, he’s got something.”
Rozier wasn’t shy about continuing to be the player he was growing up, as even the first time he walked into the gym he had confidence in his role, “It was really just me coming in and being who I am from the start. That’s being a great leader. They just accepted me for who I was.” And Rozier, who sees himself going into coaching after the conclusion of his playing career, continues to grow in this role, speaking with Dambrot daily about new ways to get through to his teammates.
While the off-court leadership has garnered most of the praise for Rozier, he takes advantage of sometimes limited minutes (he plays 15.3 mpg) with a play style that sets an example. His 2.6 assist-to-turnover rate would be Top 10 in the conference if he had played enough minutes to qualify and he is fearless attacking the rim.
But the signature to Rozier’s game is on his on-ball pressure defense. Rozier is the guy in every game, from professional to pick-up, who is always in the face of his opponent, to the point that it often starts to piss off that guy. That player will then try to get physical with Rozier, but his tenacity makes him a hard guy to move, despite the small stature. Nowhere is that more evident than in the press, where Rozier tends to get an insanely intense look in his eyes, a focus that often seems more comparable to a jungle cat preparing to tackle its prey than a human playing defense in a game. And with how hard he competes, I won’t completely rule out the possibility that Rozier could tackle an opposing point guard during his career.
Last season, the glue that held the pieces together seemed to be expired and unable to hold for much longer than a few minutes at a time, and while Rozier is like the highest quality superglue off the court, the on-court cohesion is often maintained by the two contributors on last year’s team who did stay, Tre Williams and Austin Rotoroff. Coach Thomas noted that both of the returning big men joined Rozier and Dae Dae Grant as the core of the team’s leadership.
Rotoroff is the team’s brick wall and consistently provides a spark for his teammates, most often via the offensive glass (his 20.1% offensive rebounding rate only trails Purdue’s Zach Edey, the leader for the Wooden Award, nationally). It’s that hard work and strength that has an impact on his teammates and he noted “I’ve always been a lead-by-example guy, I’ve never been too outgoing and vocal. That’s one thing I’ve challenged myself more on this year, to be more of a vocal presence.”
Rotoroff’s five years of experience in the program is also a valuable asset to a group that mostly consisted of newcomers at the start of the year and he has found his voice in that way, “I think it’s important for me to not only help the guys to understand what they can do on the court as far as the game planning or what we try to do on the offensive or defensive end but also how to function together as a group, to be a connected unit, players and coaches as well.”
They have come together on the court and off of it as well. Rozier referred to them as a tight-knit group that does a lot of things together, most notably plenty of team trips to the bowling alley, and he believes that off-court chemistry directly correlates to on-court chemistry.
That chemistry and togetherness is the secret weapon to Duquesne’s strong late-season play and Dambrot has made that a consistent theme of his recent press conferences. He said after this week’s win over St. Joe’s that “They are willing to sacrifice to win. I just think it takes a couple guys to get guys off the fence and to go all in and I think that’s what’s happened.”
The Dukes’ minutes breakdown seems like it would add up to too many, with eleven averaging over ten minutes per game across the season but it all fits together because Grant is the only player averaging over thirty. It’s pretty easy to make the case that basically every other player on the roster isn’t playing as many minutes as they would deserve in a perfect situation, yet everyone who steps on the court has been playing at full throttle down the stretch and that hard work and hustle are evident in their defensive improvement.
Going into conference play, just about every metric, from opponent shooting percentages to the catch-all analytical efficiency numbers showed Duquesne as having an average (or perhaps slightly below average) defense nationally and in the conference. But after narrowly surviving a shootout with Indiana St in mid-Decemeber, the Dukes have stepped up at every level of defense (save for giving up 87 points at UMass), becoming the A-10’s best two-point defense and forcing turnovers at a rate bested by just VCU’s press. They even began to clean up their three-point defense bugaboo and now rank basically average (7th) in the A-10 at it (it was so poor early on that the Dukes still rank 228th nationally over the full season). Kenpom even ranks Duquesne as the second-best defense in A-10 play, ahead of a Dayton unit that was one of the best in the nation early in the season.
There are a few important and lengthy droughts that Duquesne has a chance to end this year but one is staring them right in the face at this moment, they haven’t finished Top 4 in the A-10 since 1994, a mark they are currently one game back of. With just five games left in the regular season (including one each against the two teams they are chasing), the Dukes are now tasked with making sure they continue to play with the same level of fire and selflessness when March rolls around. Rozier certainly believes that this team is built to maintain that attitude, “We got a good group of guys, everyone wants to win. That’s the good thing about this team, we don’t have no a**holes on the team. Everyone is just bought in.”