Photo Credit: DU Athletics
Puck Swami is the internet moniker of a long-time DU fan and alumnus. He shares his views periodically with LetsGoDU.
As I look back on the 2015-2106 DU basketball season, the operative phrase, at least for me, is “pleasant surprise.”
At 15-14, the Pioneers achieved a winning record and sixth-place finish in the regular season where the cognoscenti predicted a last-place (eighth place) finish for DU in the Summit League. It was a return to respectability with a very young, resilient team overachieving after last year’s 12-18 disappointment with a veteran lineup.
As we look longer term, the elephant in the room is that the Pioneers, after nine years under Joe Scott’s leadership, still have yet to appear in the NCAA tournament. While his bosses at DU have been (extremely) patient in this regard, Scott’s contract is due to expire in 2018.
Is Coach Scott getting the job done? It’s a fair question.
Some critics say no. A lack of NCAA appearances, falling attendance, his in-game intensity, his recruiting/transfer issues and his slow tempo offensive system typically come up when his detractors speak.
However, while Scott is flawed as all human beings are, I still believe in him as a coach — at least for now. His body of work is strong. He dug DU out from the dregs of Division I and took the program to back-to-back 20+ win seasons, a league title, top third RPIs, an NIT win and a solid home record. His detailed Princeton system, his team-first philosophy and his graduation rate are all positive and differentiating in the morass of today’s college hoop scene.
He has also recruited players that most other DI schools overlooked and developed them into strong DI and professional basketball players (Chris Udofia, Cam Griffin and Royce O’Neale, for example). He’s done it all on a relative beer budget, in multiple leagues, and while saddled with a lack of winning tradition, middling (or worse, usually worse) fan support and a substandard home recruiting area (Colorado).
And I think this year is perhaps Scott’s best season to date.
The Pioneers came into the season with one of the country’s youngest teams. They won some games early in the year, took some lumps as expected but finished the regular season playing well, finishing with a 6-6 road record. They were also often a very tough opponent in most of the losses they suffered. And while a .500 basketball team is hardly cause for celebration, I think this team played respectable basketball, and they played with determination, grit and heart. Unlike last year’s team, which frankly underachieved, this 2015-2016 DU team overachieved in wins, road wins, and growing up quickly, winning a #6 tourney seed in a deceptively tough conference.
More importantly, Scott’s freshman class has the potential be the best recruiting class in school history. Joe Rosga, C.J. Bobbitt and Thomas Neff all showed Pio fans how freshmen can develop into effective DI players, if given the playing time to do so.
Guard Joe Rosga became the most consistent player on the team as a freshman, logging a ton of minutes every game (32.8 min/game), leading the team in scoring (12.3 PPG), and earning the trust of everyone for his ball handling, shooting, passing and defense. He is already better than the point guard he replaces, senior Bryant Rucker, who was a solid player and leader for the Pioneers as a senior. Rosga also bought high energy and the kind of determination that will make him the centerpiece of the Pioneers going forward.
Freshman Thomas Neff came on strong in the second half of the season, and showed he can be the three point threat (41% from behind the arc) to fill the shoes of the departing shooting guard, Nate Engesser. Together with Rosga, Neff will help keep opponent defenses stretched as the Pios should stay a good three-point shooting team.
And 6-7 freshman C.J. Bobbitt developed into a decent rebounder, showed scoring touch and defensive strengths, with added athleticism that makes him a valuable replacement for the graduating Marcus Byrd. And while Byrd was a floor leader and a better shooter than Bobbitt, Byrd is also a fifth-year senior. With a few more years of development, Bobbitt should be able to more than fill Byrd’s shoes.
But you can’t judge a coach on his freshman recruits only. You have to look at the growth and development of existing roster players. This year, some sophomores took big developmental steps. Guard Jake Pemberton was probably the most improved player on the team. His playing time increased from seven minutes to 26 minutes per game this year. His offense went from one point per game last year to 4.5 this year, proving him to be an effective and versatile player who does the little things that win games – steals, diving for loose balls, playing tough defense from multiple positions.
Sophomore Christian Mackey found more confidence about halfway through his sophomore year, where his 6-6, 270 lb. tight-end body can be a serious inside presence on the glass. Mackey bumped up his rebound average to 2.6 per game. His point production also doubled to 4.5 PPG and he proved he can be a D-I player with the potential to take over a game, as he did vs IUPUI.
Duke Douglas was another sophomore who, while his numbers and playing time were pretty even with his freshman year numbers, showed flashes of becoming a more important player this year. He showed more confidence with the ball, and had a had terrific span of play from mid-January to mid February. Let’s hope he can continue that next year as he learns to be consistent.
One player who did not develop this year was 6-10 center Daniel Amigo. Amigo showed flashes in his freshman year of being the first Pioneer player at that height to do damage since DU’s 6-10 Yemi Nicholson dominated the Sun Belt about 10 years ago. But Amigo is still a huge developmental question mark. He was injured very early in the season and also battled suspension for not following Scott’s team rules. He ended the season on the deep end of the DU bench, often in street clothes.
If Amigo is able to get heathy, toughen up and follow the DU program, his development could really help the Pioneers, but for now, he remains an enigma. Personally, I would like to see Amigo thrive, as DU has not had effective big men in a conference where many teams tend to pound the ball inside on the undersized Pios. But until we see him actually playing in games, it’s hard to know where he stands in the eyes of the people who matter – his coaches and teammates.
Next year, the Pios lose Byrd, Engesser and Rucker. The development of Rosga, Neff and Bobbitt should immediately compensate for those losses. Add in the improvements of Pemberton and Mackey, the potential of Douglas and Amigo as well as the red-shirt Abiola Akintola, the Australian forward, who blew out his knee in pre-season practice this year. DU will return an experienced team next season with depth at most positions, and there is every reason to think that this group has the potential to hang (and perhaps even make a title push) with the top teams in the Summit League. And that doesn’t even include incoming freshman recruits Luke Neff (Thomas Neff’s brother) and Jake Krafka.
That’s not to say that there aren’t question marks. Big ones, too. A recruiting hiccup a couple of years ago and some untimely transfers of players in recent years have left the DU program in the very unique position of not returning a single playing senior next season. And in leagues like the Summit where middling 2-star recruits on all teams must develop well to create contenders, the lack of seniors may be an issue for a Pioneer team.
The other big issue, at least to me, is home attendance. This year, home attendance was only 1,645 people per game, which dropped from about 2,300 last year and the 3,330 per game in the 2012-2013 WAC title year. There are a number of reasons for this, but the biggest one appears to be a reduction in the Rising Stars program, which supplies subsidized tickets to top elementary school student leaders and their families.
The bottom line is that DU wants men’s basketball to become self-sustaining, meaning it can someday pay for its own $2.6 million annual budget. Drawing high school-size crowds of 1,600 people is not going to make this happen, so winning games, securing better-known home opponents and building better promotions must be a priority for the program.
I’ve said this before, but I think DU would probably rather extend Joe Scott’s contract than have to fire him and eat any of his $400-500,000 annual compensation before his contract expires at the end of the 2017-2018 season (two years from now).
But Scott must do his part and show continued improvement. This year was a good step in this process, and I think he’ll get the opportunity to show more progress next year.