With the field for the NCAA basketball tournament being announced tonight, it seems like a good time to look back on Denver’s season. It was the first season of the Rodney Billups era, and I think, despite the somewhat disappointing finish, it provides a lot of hope for the future.
On November 23, Denver sat at 1-2, they had just lost a game to Utah Valley despite having a 27 point lead late in the first half. Coach Billups had long preached the importance of protecting home court, but it just seemed that this team didn’t have it. At that point it looked like Denver might be in for a long season, they had a string of road games ahead of them against teams they knew would provide challenges.
Instead of folding, the Pios turned things around, going 4-3 on the long road trip, including a victory over Air Force at Clune Arena. It was this game that gave us a taste of just what Daniel Amigo could become. He had a number of strong games before this one, but against the Falcons, Amigo went off for 33 points and 10 rebounds, willing Denver to a victory along the way.
Denver would win their next three games at home to finish the nonconference season 8-5 and give fans a renewed hope as conference season started. As we all know, the first half of the Summit League season was great for Denver. They went 5-3, winning 3 of 4 home games, and looking like a team that could compete for a Summit League title if things fell the right way. For awhile things did just that, and heading into the February 11 game at North Dakota State, Denver just needed a victory to pull into a tie for first place. Instead, they got dominated, losing 81-66, and although we didn’t know it at the time, that looks like it was the beginning of the end. Denver would lose four of the next five, including two at home, and in the first round of the conference tournament.
It’s not too hard to diagnose what went wrong, in the first half of the conference season, Denver outscored opponents by an average of 81.1-76.6. In the second half of the conference season, those numbers almost flipped and Denver was outscored 79.8-76.5. Credit to the Pioneers’ Summit League opponents, they found ways to shut Denver down offensively as the year went on, and Denver’s defense wasn’t capable of picking up the slack.
Overall, despite the end to the season, there are many positives to take away:
-Daniel Amigo. What an improvement he has made under the new coaching staff! When he is in the game, the entire offense runs through him and he can be a force. He must work on fouls though, a couple early fouls in a game can completely change Denver’s game plan.
-We saw Denver try to run and gun a bit early in the season, but it was becoming clear that it wasn’t the best fit for this particular group of players. They still played much faster than Joe Scott teams, and gave some exciting glimpses into the future of an uptempo Denver basketball team.
-Free Throws. No, they didn’t do as well as the last couple years, but their 73.4% was good enough to be ranked #78 out of 351 teams. It was also dragged down by Daniel Amigo going 91-139 (.655) from the line, that will be something for him to work on this summer.
And of course a few negatives:
-Defense. The Pios made some nice gains on the offensive front, but their defense was a problem all season, especially when the scoring dried up. They will certainly need to improve if they want to compete for the league championship next season.
-Turnovers. Kind of a two-for here. Denver struggled on offense, turning the ball over quite often. They also had problems on the other end too, forcing very few turnovers when they were on defense. An improvement on turnovers on both ends is absolutely critical for next season.
Personally, despite the ups and downs, I found this season to be quite enjoyable and an early peek at what is to come. Considering the makeup of the team, there is no reason that Denver can’t compete for the regular season championship next year. Amigo, Rosga, Bobbitt, Pemberton, and Neff all played a massive number of minutes this season and they all return next year. There will also be the return of many important role players – Mackey, Murkey, Krafka, George, and Akintola, as well as the addition of Elijah Blake and Elvin Rodriguez.
I think we have a lot to look forward to, both next year, and in the years to come.