Puck Swami’s Rapid Reaction: Scott Out and Billups In

Billups

DU Graduate Rodney Billups (’05)  is the next head hoops coach at DU, according to ESPN

Puck Swami is the Internet moniker of a longtime DU fan and alumnus. He shares his views periodically with LetsGoDU.

Like many DU fans, I was surprised, but not shocked, at today’s news that nine-year head DU head basketball coach Joe Scott had been fired with two years remaining on his contract, and that DU grad / CU assistant coach Rodney Billups will likely be the next head coach at DU, according to reports from ESPN.

My surprise was that the Pioneers had just finished a winning season with a very young team (starting three freshmen) that came with one second of playing for the Summit League Tourney Title and an NCAA auto-bid. Scott had also had a winning career record, rebuilt the program from a 4-25 disaster when he arrived in 2007, including a WAC league title in 2013, two record 20+ win seasons, an NIT victory and a top graduation rate.

But the lack of shock was based on the cold reality that Scott could not deliver the one thing DU covets most – an NCAA tournament appearance, while other Front Range schools have achieved that milestone during Scott’t tenure. Scott’s teams have also fallen in quality from the 2013 high water mark, and attendance had fallen dramatically from the 3,000+ per game crowds three years ago to the 1,600 fan average we see today, similar to the crowd sizes when Scott took over in 2007.

Additionally, DU had changed over much of the assistant coaching staff prior to this year, which is usually a signal that the head coach is on the hot seat. Scott was an intense coach at DU, and his on-court yelling was hard for some fans to watch, and the recruiting problems the program faced after losing a number of players to transfer in recent years certainly didn’t help.

Personally, I will miss Scott as DU’s coach. His Princeton system was detailed and different from other college basketball programs. When it worked, it was a joy to watch. Ball movement, moving players, precision shooting and backdoor cuts could make other teams look silly. It enabled DU’s lower level of recruited athletes to beat programs with bigger and more athletic players. It also had disciplined, measured focus on team play that for this fan, was more fun to watch then the individualistic, run-and-gun (and miss) style most other college programs run these days. Scott also won a lot of games, and took the program from the Division I gutter in 2007 to a top 100 program (there are 350 programs in Division I) in recent years.

But I also understand the frustration DU faces as it tries to elevate basketball to the high level of performance of DU’s other sports teams. The challenge to be a high level mid major is hard in this saturated sports market, where there are more established local programs, little college basketball tradition and a sub-standard recruiting area. DU’s $2.6 million budget for basketball is solid for the Summit League, but pales in comparison to the top budgets in college basketball, where $10 million plus is expected. DU’s other sports win at the national level because DU usually funds those programs in the upper echelon of the sports where those programs compete, at least in hockey, lacrosse, skiing, and gymnastics. DU will likely never be spending $10 million or more on college hoops in our lifetimes, so expectations need to be tempered.

My guess is that DU has been thinking about making this move to fire Scott for at least the last year, as on the same afternoon that Scott was fired, ESPN reported that Rodney Billups will be the new coach at DU (link: http://espn.go.com/mens-college-basketball/story/_/id/14951789/denver-pioneers-hire-chauncey-billups-brother-men-basketball-head-coach). Billups, the former DU hoops captain who graduated in 2005, and has been an assistant coach at the University of Colorado for the last six seasons.

Billups is part of local basketball royalty, as the brother of CU and NBA legend Chauncey Billups. The Billups family grew up in the Park Hill neighborhood of Denver and has a strong local connections to the area hoop scene and AAU circuit. Rodney has become a good recruiter for CU in recent years helping that team to NCAA tournament appearances. As a DU grad, he also understands the Pioneer program and will likely come to Denver for less money than DU was paying Scott, who was an established head coach at Princeton and Air Force before he came to DU.

Billups is also African-American, which I believe is a big plus in that it may be able to help DU gain access to a wider pool of potential recruits, as some 60% of today’s Division I basketball players are black. Denver’s rosters under Scott have certainly had excellent black players, but in the eyes of this fan, probably not enough of them. Billups is also quite young (early 30s), which may also help him relate to today’s college players perhaps more easily than Scott’s old-school style.

The one big thing that makes the hiring something of a gamble is the fact that Billups has never been a head coach before. If the hire works and DU makes it to the NCAA tournament it makes Peg Bradley-Doppes look like a genius. If it doesn’t, Billups will join every other DU  D-I hoops coach including Stan Albeck, Ben Jobe, Marty Fletcher, Terry Carroll and Joe Scott not to go dancing.

I wish both Joe Scott and Rodney Billups well as the new era in DU hoops begins.