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.

2 thoughts on “Not So Fast, Denver Basketball”

  1. Anybody who expects league titles in the first few seasons is fooling themselves. In most cases, it takes at least three years for a coach to get a majority of his own recruited players into his own system and playing the style he wants to play. Expecting a team that never played up tempo ball to suddenly be good at it in year one is crazy. Our guys certainly know how to run and play playground hoops from their youth days, but that’s a far cry from a D-I up tempo system, and these guys were not recruited to play up-tempo ball, so they will be behind the others for a while. This team already knows how to shoot from the perimeter and play some defense. What they don’t know how to do is rebound well, play inside the paint and drive/penetrate. That’s going to take time.


  2. Tooting my own horn, I stated in writing more then 5 years ago that when Scott leaves, DU could be in for difficult times. No way Scott could leave our program in good shape since it was unlikely that our next coach would play a real slow tempo of ball. I wanted to be incorrect. I do think Scott left us some players who will be fine in a up-tempo offense. The bigs must come through. In hoops, a quick fix is possible because 1-2 players can make a difference. Hope for the best. I’m fine with a few JUCO’s.
    FYI- Back in the 70’s, 2 Indiana school boys took official visits to DU. Bob Heaton and Larry Bird. Bob enrolled and played well. Larry went to IU for a year, couldn’t stand Bob Knight, and transferred to Indiana State. When DU dropped out of Div 1, Heaton transferred to Indiana State to join his pal Larry Bird. To this day, the well spoke Heaton is the main narrator in most Bird TV biographies. DU had a center named Jim Mitchem who transferred to DePaul under the Heaton scenario the same year. Both Heaton and Mitchem played in the Final Four. What could have been!! Rodney may just get us some respect.


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