Hoops 2016-2017: Does Denver Have What it Takes?

After this year’s exciting, if a bit heartbreaking, semifinal game against South Dakota State and the dismantling of Omaha and North Dakota State in the prior two games, DU  is still the same team that lost to cellar-dwelling Western Illinois in Denver on February 11th. While Denver did show dramatic improvement near the end of this season, that progress must continue if DU is going to travel to Sioux Falls next year and have more success on a “not exactly neutral” court.

No evaluation of this year’s squad would be complete without recognizing the contributions of seniors’ Marcus Byrd (LetsGoDU MVP), Nate Engesser, and Bryant Rucker. Coming off a poor team effort in the 2014-2015 season, they easily could have ‘checked out’ for their senior seasons, especially when they lost playing time to incoming freshmen, liberal floor substitutions, and the up and down drama of this year’s college basketball season.

Instead, they mentored the new players, continued to buy into the system, and they just worked hard. They surpassed all expectations, except, likely their own. In an era of “why don’t we win more”, these are three good guys who will earn their degrees, stayed out of trouble, gave it all they had, and leave their team in as good or better shape than when they joined the Pioneers. As fans, you can’t ask for more than that.

At risk of sounding like a broken record, to be a consistent winner, DU must add a low post presence. For example, South Dakota State University added a 2-star recruit, Mike Daum, the 6’9″ 230 lb Summit League Freshman of the Year. He was the difference in the Summit League semifinal victory over DU.

In order to consistently win, Denver needs a stopper in the middle who can get easy buckets on offense when the perimeter shots are not falling. In a close game, nothing is more devastating than giving up easy buckets and nothing is more uplifting for a team than easy buckets or dunks.

Christian Mackey showed great improvement (who could forget his IUPUI tour de force game?) this year and is perfect for relief in the pivot. The jury is still out on Daniel Amigo. Does he have the physical skill, endurance, and attitude to be DU’s version of Daum? Still, the risk is too big to head into next year without adding a big man to the squad. C.J. Bobbitt is best suited at the forward slot to take advantage of his athleticism and mobility so it might be wise to play him mostly at forward to leverage his skills.

Areas for improvement:

  • Rebound differential  -5.3 (316/346 NCAA)
  • Blocks 2.4 (306/346)
  • Offensive Rebounds per Game 5.63 (345/346)
  • Defensive Rebounds per Game  19.77 (346/346)
  • Defensive Efficiency  1.028 (204/351)

Strengths:

  • Turnover Margin  +1.2 (106/346)
  • Field Goal % –   47.6% (31/346)
  • Scoring Defense 65.3 (33/346)
  • Free Throws 77% (6/346)

The stats tell the story: DU must address their lack of size & get better at rebounding to provide consistency.

When the season started, LetsGoDU said DU needed three players to emerge from this year’s freshman class if DU is realistically going to compete for a championship. That was a big ask – but BOOM – the coaching staff did it. Bobbitt is the athletic, gifted, creative floor player DU has been lacking. He has nothing but up-side going forward and he will be an anchor for the next three years.

Thomas Neff has great size at the guard position and plays solid defense. All season Thomas knocked down big shots at important times. He could easily be an all-conference player by his junior season. The heart of the freshman class, Joe Rosga (LetsGoDU Freshman of the Year), is the entire package. He may end up as one of the Pioneers best players of all time. If this group can stay together, the sky is the limit – assuming DU can add the necessary support pieces around them while  avoiding injuries and transfers.

When Jake Pemberton joined the team last year, I was calling him a recruiting bust. How wrong I was! He is DU’s most improved player with a nifty all-around game that adds to the stat sheet on offense and defense. He has quick hands, is a solid defender, and a good offensive player. He is one of DU’s most versatile and dependable players. With added experience, strength and size, it will be hard to get him off the floor next year. If he can add more bulk and power to his growing confidence, he can create offensive separation that will make him a headache for opposing teams.

Duke Douglas is one of DU’s most athletic players. He showed big-time improvement this year and took over several games during the year, coming off the bench. If he can add some consistency and development, like Pemberton has shown, he could be a devastating coming off the bench next season and may be a starter when DU needs to ‘play big’. He needs to work on his shot selection and defensive positioning but he has a huge upside. With a good offseason, he could be next year’s Jake Pemberton.

Jake Holtzman has size and a good shot but his time on the floor declined during the year. He can shoot but needs to add strength and work on his defensive footwork to get more floor time next year. Physically, he needs to add strength, flexibility, and quickness – so this offseason will be a big one for him for him to earn more floor time next season.

6’6″ Abiola Akintola, injured before the season started, is an unknown at forward. From looking at his old tapes, he is a raw talent so the jury is out on how quickly he can help Denver – especially under the basket and in the paint. Denver needs help and consistency in this area and Akintola may be the surprise missing piece to help replace some of the skills lost with Marcus Byrd.

Newcomer Luke Neff is a deadly shooter and will fill the outside shooting skills of Nate Engesser but he does not possess Engesser’s size – useful, especially on the defensive end of the floor. 6’7″ Jake Krafka appears to be very athletic – very similar to C.J. Bobbitt, with a good upside. He, too, should be able to pick up some of the slack left by veteran floor general Marcus Byrd. That leaves DU with an open spot for a much needed big man to add some mass and consistency to the middle of DU’s floor game.

There is no greater priority for Denver than center –  but they must pick wisely. The right player will be the difference maker that DU will need to separate themselves from the rest of the Summit League pack. In order to win the Summit League in Sioux Falls, SD, they need to be significantly better than the other teams. Having the right player in the middle, like Daum, will give them that chance. Oh, and by the way, DU will have to go through South Dakota State’s Mike Daum for three more years – so they need an answer.

One more big block could be the difference.