Not So Fast, Denver Basketball

Photo credit: DU Basketball

Optimism reigns at Magness. They are now the up-tempo Pioneers. Sioux Falls, once hated as an unfair league playoff site, is now seen as a place where DU basketball will make history – maybe even next year!

DU will be different next season.

When South Dakota State University hired their new head coach, T.J. Otzelberger, the players were interviewed about the new hire. The Jackrabbits guard Reed Tellinghuisen said in this article, “He (Otzelberger) made a real good impression. And the basketball stuff excited us, too. He plans to play free offensively and we wanted to hear that. If he was a guy that wanted to slow it down like Denver, that might’ve been a tough sell.”

Just how slow was Denver? According to Team Rankings Denver put up 46.7 shots per game which was dead last in NCAA Division I (351/351). That was 1.1 shots better than the prior year when they finished 350th out of 351 programs. They made up for that with a high shooting percentage of 47.5% which was 25th in the country and an impressive free throw percentage of 77% which was 9th in the entire nation. Unfortunately, Denver’s relatively static offense only took them to the line 16.1 times per game which was 329th in the nation.

Now, DU is going up tempo.

Certainly DU’s ‘old’ style, developed over nine years of the Princeton offense, impacted DU’s ability to recruit  the ‘best athlete available’ and DU lost out on recruits who prefer to play fast. The second intriguing question is – Can Rodney Billups’ coaching style and faster playing style achieve better results with virtually the same players?

Freakonomics would say that we should expect little change: “We (Freakonomics authors) find that for particularly poorly performing teams, coach replacements have little effect on team performance as measured against comparable teams that did not replace their coach. However, for teams with middling records (DU)—that is, teams where entry conditions for a new coach appear to be more favorable—replacing the head coach appears to result in worse performance over subsequent years than comparable teams who retained their coach.” But college basketball coaches seem to make more of a difference to their teams than coaches in most professional sports.

Still, could the Freakonomics findings be offset by a ‘happier team’ as the Pioneers move from a more grizzled coach to a ‘players coach’?

An article in the Des Moines Register about gruff coaching styles profiled player’s changing expectations. “Millennials are changing the coach-athlete dynamic, looking for more of a partnership than a dictatorship. For veteran college coaches, it can pose a dilemma: How far can you push a player in pursuit of excellence, and is it possible to still be heard both loud and clear? They (today’s players) want to know that you care, and they also want to know why. They will no longer accept you just telling them to do things,” said Zac Boisvert, who was an assistant on the coaching staffs at Division I Iona and Fairleigh Dickinson.” Rodney Billups, a self-defined players coach, seems to meet the preferred millennials coaching style. Will happier players lead to more W’s?

Almost all of today’s DI players are coming from AAU programs that have turned into developmental leagues for college coaches. Almost all of DU’s current players were on AAU teams. They play a lot of games (20-60) in a short season and gain situational basketball experiences. The style of play is generally dominated by up-tempo play and one-on-one basketball. Players are often trying to perform to attract attention from coaches and scouts. Practice time is limited and games are fast paced, up and down affairs where individuals display their skills.

All of DU’s current and incoming players have been in the AAU environment so Billups up-tempo game should not come as a total shock. However, some of the current players may have come to DU because they prefer a more controlled style that plays to their strengths. Despite the players’ willingness to adopt the new system, there is no guarantee they can execute more effectively in their first season, especially on offense and with rebounding (last – 351/351).

As fans, we might enjoy the new basketball style more as spectators but the biggest open question is this: Can DU get more wins with virtually the same core of players by employing a new coaching staff and adopting a new playing style? The future does look promising but it may take several seasons before Pioneer dreams can be fulfilled.