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.


16 thoughts on “How much longer must Denver Men’s Basketball fans wait?”

  1. Every word of this article is true. We need to have patience as fans. Last year was a 16-win season, and I hope DU can at least match that this year. DU has the talent to perform at that level, and lets hope that they do it.

    While the present will take care of itself, right now, my primary worry is the future of DU’s recruiting efforts…There are a number of fronts where DU is behind where I thought they would be by now on the recruiting front, specifically:

    RECRUIT SIZE: The lack of any signed or verbally-committed big men (6-9 and taller) entering the second year of the coaching staff’s DU tenure is deeply concerning. It’s no secret that you can’t win in the Summit (or D-I for that matter) with a small lineup. Amigo graduates after this year, and there are no big men in the pipeline (as of now) to replace him or to add other larger players to the lineup. DU needs to get bigger, and so far, it hasn’t yet happened… Instead, DU has a developing log jam of future point guards and other smaller players.

    RECRUIT QUALITY: I was hoping that the Billups name and new playing style would open the door to a few more more higher-end recruits. So far, it’s still the 2-star recruit that still fills the DU roster (as with most Summit rosters). In the last 20 years, DU’s never really had a high-end recruit, although the program have developed some 2 star recruits into some very good college players. If DU can land a legitimate star recruit, I think that could change the game for them, and I am hoping for Rodney’s sake that this staff can land a bigger fish at some point…

    RECRUIT LOCATION: While I don’t really care where a recruit comes from personally as long as they work hard and represent the Pios well, I was hoping that for the program’s sake, Billups could capture a few local stars to put more excited local butts in the seats at Magness. DU won’t generate much buzz in this oversaturated sports town with same 1,200 friends and family DU averages in attendance. So far, the only local player this staff has signed is guard Elijah Blake, who has yet to play a minute in a Pio uniform, as of this writing.

    Go Pios!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Everything I hear is that they are looking for big men – and they lost a few that they had on the radar during the past signing period. Billups missed his radio show for ’emergency recruiting’ this week and I understand they are even looking overseas. They do have some improvement in quality with 2 of 3 incoming recruits for next year scored as 3-star by various services. But, if you are 6’9″ and can chew gum – everybody wants you on their team. Add DU’s academic requirements and their history and they are going to have to press hard to land a couple of good big men.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I can’t believe DU is counting their win against Johnson and Wales on their official record. It’s the equivalent of beating the Asian all-star team in Gates Fieldhouse on a Wednesday night.


    1. I wouldn’t lose sleep over it. IUPUI left the Summit Conference with 3-days notice so DU had not choice on short notice. Playing down is not unusual. Kansas played Pittsburgh State (MO) and Ft. Hays State (KS) Division 2 foes – probably a bigger mismatch than DU against Johnson and Wales. Deep breath and brace yourself for Colorado Mesa.


      1. KU doesn’t count those as wins in their record. That’s the difference between a good DI program and a very sub-par program.


      2. As far as I can tell the major schools play their DII games before the season and call them exhibitions while most mid major teams play them in season and count the stats – it’s certainly not only Denver that is doing that, but it is an inconsistency with the NCAA that is confusing. I also recall when I looked this up a couple years ago that these games do count as exhibitions for Johnson & Wales and Colorado Mesa (you will note that the Colorado Mesa website lists it as such: ), so it’s a situation where one team is playing for real and the other is playing an exhibition… That part has nothing to do with Denver though, just another weird NCAA quirk about these games.


  4. Playing down is acceptable when previously scheduled opponents leave your schedule in a lurch, as happened this year to DU when IUPUI bailed on the Summit last summer, shorting the Pios by two games. DU had to backfill with NAIA Johnson & Wales and D-II Colorado Mesa.

    The problem I have is DU counting these lower division games in the stats and in their record. The RPI does not count these games in DU’s record, and neither should the Pios. These should be counted as exhibition games, nothing more.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. It was a 1-year special price promotion behind the DU bench. It is not active this year but there are still seats behind the DU bench available.


  6. I’ll follow with some folks on the ‘record book’ issue. DU is showing J&W in their W/L totals for the season but that does not mean that those figures are going into the end of the year ‘record books’ for DU. I am assuming DU’s W/L records, team and individual records will not include these two games. I think some folks are jumping to a conclusion on this – but, either way, I will report back – even if I am (this pains me) wrong.


  7. I’m guessing you couldn’t fill the blocked seats being offered in that promotion.
    The fact is DU men’s hoops games are basically boring.
    Changing the style is one thing, but not winning is the key. “Outsiders” aren’t going to pay $30 courtside, $17 on the floor, $12 lower bowl, to watch a team lose fairly often against teams they don’t want to see anyway..
    And the “up-tempo style” is upbeat compared with Joe Scott’s, but it’s not really up-tempo basketball. Watch other teams on TV, like Portland State the other day against Duke. They got the ball and pushed it up court virtually every time.


  8. As much as this pains me to admit I am wrong (gulp…) “All games played count in DU’s record book. This from DU b-ball, “It does count in the record books and on end of year stats since it is an official regular season game. When D1 schools play lower level in reg season, all stats and records count.”


  9. Anyway – First, Denver fans wont support any team that loses. If DU hockey was winning 5-8 games per year (like CC) the place would be empty. Same for lacrosse, men’s soccer, etc… When DU was getting 20 wins under Scott, they were drawing good crowds, even if a number of the seats were free or discounted. Second, you are right they do not play fast – KenPom shows them in the lower third of D1 teams in tempo. Billups needs some time to get his players – Joe Scott used up a number of scholarships his final year. I guess the point of this article was to say it is going to take some time. I know, a lot of us have been waiting a long, long, long time for DU to turn the corner. I think it will happen but it may not be pretty along the way.


    1. It depends on the definition of ‘turn the corner.’ If meant as in competitive program, then Joe Scott did that and more by consistently having the Pios as a nationally recognized Mid Major able to compete with anyone on any given night. They rarely lost at home during his tenure. However, if you mean making the NCAA tournament, well that is a crapshoot, subject to any number of factors on a yearly basis. Where Scott went wrong was blowing some chances to capture the conference tourney in years when it was up for grabs.
      The other major area of concern and a shortcoming of Scott’s tenure, is as Puck pointed out, the lack of big man development. The Summit is loaded with inside beef, 6-8 and above, year in, year out. Pios would have to be exceptionally athletic to field a primarily 6-3 to 6-7 lineup and expect to be an upper echelon program in the league.
      Two-star recruits are the lifeblood of mid-major basketball; it’s the same across the board nationally and we can’t expect more than that. What we can expect is a coach who can maximize and develop what he has in front of him, regardless of personal coaching philosophy or style. To put it bluntly, there’s no reason you can’t play good defense.
      For Coach Billups in Year 2, he now has 5 of his own recruits on the roster. If the inherited players don’t cut it for what he’s trying to do, then perhaps he needs to play his guys more and more of the minutes?

      Liked by 2 people

  10. Great article – especially to read after the frustrating weekend in Florida. It’s going to be a slow process, in a way we were spoiled last year by the winning record and amazing start to Summit League play, some things fell our way and it was a really good season. It was easy to see how things could keep coming together and a 20 win season would be a possibility this year… but it’s never that easy, there are always roadblocks and pitfalls, and we’ve seen that so far. It’s important not to panic though, these November losses in year 2 suck, but they are not what will define the program under Billups and I suspect they’ll be mostly forgotten this season as Summit League play heats up.

    And you can look to tempo to see just how far off Billups is from where he wants to be… Denver is currently ranked #232/351 DI teams in adjusted tempo by kenpom, that is pretty dang slow. You can be sure that Billups wants the Pios in the top 50 at least and we’re not even close to being able to run that kind of gameplan right now.


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