There are too many games left in Duquesne’s season to say the Dukes will reach a crossroads Wednesday night against Rhode Island at Palumbo Center.
But the Dukes (14-6, 5-2) have the same record (overall and in the Atlantic 10) as they did a year ago before they lost 10 of their last 12 under first-year coach Keith Dambrot.
Now, Dambrot is in his second season and he sees some critical differences between his two teams:
• The Dukes have better scoring in the low post from Michael Hughes and Marcus Weathers, who are averaging 11.8 and 9.4 points.
• Freshman point guard Sincere Carry, whose sore left knee kept him out of the 80-74 loss to VCU on Saturday, gives the Dukes a dimension they lacked last season.
“If you look at our assists numbers compared to last year (14.7 now, 11.9 per game a year ago), it’s not even close,” Dambrot said.
Rene Castro and Tarin Smith were the chief ball-handlers last season. Castro exhausted his eligibility; Smith transferred to Connecticut.
“They would both start for us,” Dambrot said. “Really good players, really good, but they’re not as good at that spot as (Carry). As long as Sincere plays, we’ll be OK.
“People don’t understand the importance of having the brains behind the body. It’s a big deal. You lose one guy in basketball, that’s really important. Look at the Lakers (slumping without LeBron James).”
Carry, whose knee was drained of fluid, might have to play through pain the rest of the season. He practiced Tuesday morning, and Dambrot said he would be surprised if Carry isn’t available Wednesday.
“You’re talking about one of the toughest guys I’ve ever coached,” he said. “So my gut is he’s going to play every game. If he could have played the last game, he would have played the last game.”
Aside from its starting lineup, Dambrot might have mentioned one other difference in this season’s team: It knows how to win close games.
Six of those 10 defeats at the end of last season were decided by seven points or fewer. This season, Duquesne has an 8-3 record when the game ends with a margin of six or fewer.
Dambrot, of course, is never satisfied and wants to see his team play better defense to turn those close games into easier victories.
“This team is not playing as good defensively as our team did last year in stretches,” he said.
“That’s something we are going to have to do if we’re going to take the next step. I’ve been on them every day to put more time into it.”
Part of the problem Saturday was a manpower shortage. The team is missing guard Mike Lewis (transfer) and forward Austin Rotroff (season-ending knee injury) from its original roster. Then, without Carry, sophomore point guard Tavian Dunn-Martin played a season-high 35 minutes against VCU’s game-long, full-court pressure. Still, he ended up leading the team with 21 points.
“I thought it hurt us at the end of the game,” Dambrot said. “We were noticeably more tired than they were. We made a couple of bad plays that probably we wouldn’t have made if we weren’t as tired.”
But no excuses, he said.
“That’s the nature of this business. You just have to figure out ways to win.”
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry at [email protected] or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.