Pitt, Duquesne enter "City Game" searching for direction
PITTSBURGH (AP) Keith Dambrot remembers the stories his father Sid would tell about his playing days at Duquesne in the 1950s. The Dukes were an East Coast basketball power back then, regularly making the NIT back when it was the postseason destination of choice and treating the yearly game against guys across town at Pittsburgh as nothing more than a speed bump on the way to greater things.
''My dad would tell you, they were like a JV team,'' said the younger Dambrot, now in his first year as head coach at his father's alma mater. ''But then Duquesne became like a JV team right compared to them. So I do know the history. According to him, according to Sid. That's a very biased opinion. I can say that early on when I was young that my dad was distraught at how it flipped. He didn't like it. Maybe that's one reason I'm here.''
One of many. The Dukes (2-2) have beaten the Panthers (3-4) just four times in the last 35 meetings heading into Friday's 86th iteration of the City Game. That includes a 64-55 victory last December that ended a 15-game losing streak in a series that dates to 1932. Yet it did little to save then head coach Jim Ferry's job. He was fired in March, the stunner over the Panthers last December one of the few bright spots five years in which the Dukes couldn't seem to escape the depths of the Atlantic 10.
Enter Dambrot, who left Akron for the Dukes last spring, is determined to bring some of the luster back to a program that hasn't reached the NCAA tournament in 40 years. Dambrot is being pragmatic in his approach. Respectability won't come easy and it won't come quickly and it won't come unless he can upgrade the talent on the roster. The Dukes have just six scholarship players available while five transfers are sitting out this season, per NCAA rules.
Pitt's Kevin Stallings finds himself in a similar spot early in his second season with the Panthers. Both schools were picked to finish last in their respective conferences. They both feature massively retooled lineups. They both understand that winning, at least winning on a large scale, may be years away.
All of which puts the City Game in kind of a weird spot. It matters. And it also kind of doesn't.
''I want to win the game but I've got bigger fish to fry,'' Dambrot said. ''I've got enough issues on my plate that I just got to get my team playing better and trying to build it from the ground up. One win over Pitt isn't going to make or break us in the grand scheme of where I want to take the program and one loss against Pitt isn't going to make or break us.''
The same goes for the Panthers, who have just two holdovers from the team that watched the Dukes celebrate on center court at PPG Paints Arena. Though Stallings is technically in his second season, in many ways it feels like his first. He's trying to find a way to incorporate 11 new faces into the mix, most of whom knew little about Duquesne or the rivalry between the schools located 2.4 miles apart until they arrived on campus.
Stallings allowed there may be more internal pressure on him as Pitt tries to avoid dropping consecutive games to Duquesne for the first time since Jimmy Carter was president (1980). Yet much like Dambrot, he understands his season and his tenure will be measured on something far larger than whatever transpires on Friday night.
''So what if he beats us?'' Stallings said. ''I mean, really, so what? So what if we beat him? We still got 20 more games, 21 more games ... I'd rather have a guy over there (at Duquesne) that would be the whole season, them beating us. But he's way smarter than that. It's an important game but we need to try to continue to build and get better.''
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