How much longer must Denver Men’s Basketball fans wait?

It seems like this is annual column at LetsGoDU. How long, if ever, do fans have to wait to watch the DU men’s basketball make the NCAA Basketball Tournament?

A little longer.

But, with Rodney Billups in year two, a program changing its playing style to ‘up-tempo’, a reliance on 4-year players (when over 700 NCAA Division I players transfer schools each season), a 1-bid league with a tournament in a hostile location (Sioux Falls) and a modest amount of historical success – what is the roadmap to success for Denver?

Currently, 43 teams have never made it to The Dance – most of them being relatively new. But since the tournament started in 1939, old blue bloods Army, Citadel, St. Francis (Brooklyn) and William & Mary are our peers in futility. And Northwestern, our sister school switched away from the Princeton offense to “up tempo”,  is our inspiration – making the NCAA Tournament for the first time last season – their first time ever since the tournament’s inception in 1939.

Denver basketball was NCAA Tournament eligible starting in the 40’s through 1979 and re-entered D1 play again in 1998. Denver won an NIT first round game at Magness Arena in 2013 against Ohio 61-57.

That’s it.

Otherwise, Denver fell in 3 of 4 Division II tournament contests, lost two NAIA tournaments and dropped their other three NIT tilts.

So how did schools similar to DU break out of their roundball funk? Obviously, they started with solid coaching, a commitment from their universities and began to attract talent to build consistently competitive programs.

Bleacher Report ranked the Top 20 Mid-Major basketball programs. It is safe to assume that many of these programs were already relatively stable and attracted superior coaches and talent. We limited the list to programs similar to Denver’s with head coaches currently at the helm during their first four years. How long did it take them to turn their programs around?


Ironically, DU’s opponent this afternoon, Florida Gulf Coast University head coach Joe Dooley has been the most successful with tournament appearances in each of his first four years and NCAA Tournament appearances in years three and four.

Rodney Billups is ahead of schedule with a winning record his first year (16-14) when the average winning percentage of the comparison group was 43%. Then, only one of the nine programs made the NCAA’s in their second year. In fact, most programs hovered around .500 for years 2-3 and finally took off in year four. Not surprisingly, it took four years to fill the pipeline with ‘their players’ and implement their playing system to improve their winning percentages. Even by year four, only three programs made the NCAA Tournament while one made the NIT and another the CIT (College Invitational Tournament).

So, patience is the key – along with recruiting. DU is going to need a bit of luck, too. They must recruit players that are actually better than the Summit League peer group because they must win in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Also, they must find some ‘sleeper’ players that major programs have passed over and develop and retain those players. The best examples in the current Summit League are Mike Daum (SDSU), John Konchar (Fort Wayne), and Matt Mooney (South Dakota). All three could play in any major college basketball conference. Finally, DU must add size to create a team capable of battling in tournaments – a must for any team with any chance of advancing when games turn to half-court battles.

Still, fans must remind themselves that a 1-bid conference and a program rebuild will take time before Denver realistically can win the Summit League. Our best guess is a four to five year plan under Rodney Billups is a reasonable expectation for an NCAA bid. It could happen earlier but it will take some good fortune.