DU Men’s Basketball Season Preview: High expectations for Denver Hoops

Photo: Courtesy of DU Basketball Twitter

It finally could happen – a postseason appearance by Denver in March Madness for the first time EVER or even a trip to the NIT. This Pioneer basketball team could, realistically, make history this season under third-year head coach Rodney Billups.

So, its fair to call us dumb  – until proven otherwise. Sure, DU has come close before but Denver hoops historically rolls out a middling team that disappoints the few times they have approached the summit (pun intended). But this year is different – and we’ll give you realistic reasons for hope.

In this preview we will cover DU’s roster, personnel changes in the Summit League, nonconference predictions, conference finish, and build the case for a Denver Summit League championship in Sioux Falls. It will not be easy, but for the first time in years, the Pioneers have the talent, coaching, and schedule to have a potentially record-breaking season. And it won’t take luck – they have talent to compete for the top spot, especially at the Summit League Tournament in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

This season marks big changes for Denver with the transition from the one-size-fits-all Princeton system to a big, athletic squad. While Denver went to battle with ‘butter knife’ talent in the past, this years squad is a Swiss Army knife. With size and athleticism, this season’s Pioneers can win games in a number of different ways. But, with five new freshmen, two outstanding graduate transfers and some experienced veterans returning it will take time – a tough road nonconference schedule, finalize the starting line-up and establish substitution rotations as Denver coaches blend together the deepest squad DU has ever had, at least on paper.

We can expect the starting lineup to include senior All-Summit League veteran Joe Rosga and athletic junior Ade Murkey as Denver’s backcourt tandem. The front line of scrappy 6’7″ junior Jake Krafka, 6’7″ Creighton transfer Ronnie Harrell, Jr. and 6’9″ grad transfer Tory Miller-Stewart at center. Freshman Taelyr Gatlin is likely to spell the backcourt tandem but there will be a battle for minutes with sharp shooting freshman Jase Townsend and versatile Jacob Lanzi in the hunt for minutes as well. And, lightning fast sophomore Elvin Rodriquez brings speed to the backcourt – and should improve defensively and provide more consistent outside shooting with another year of seasoning. If Denver is going to make a run this season, one or two of these underclassmen must emerge to provide significant contributions and minutes in relief of Murkey and Rosga during the season.

The frontcourt, traditionally the Achilles heel of Denver’s teams, is now going to be a strength. With graduate transfers Harrell, Jr. and Miller-Stewart anchoring the frontcourt, the Pioneers can substitute in 6’6″ senior Abiola Akintola (220 lbs.), 6’8″ sophomore Donoven Carlisle (210 lbs), 6’8″ Turkish freshman Alperin Kurnaz (220 lbs.) and 6’9 freshman David Nzekwesi (240 pounds). And, 6’7″ Jake Krafka (225 lbs.) has a tough inside game that is ideal for league play and physical tournament play. That is a lot of inside size and depth that Denver has never had in the past. And better yet, this should allow Denver to rotate their front line to remain fresh during the season and, most importantly, during tournament time.

As for the Summit League, there are changes with DU’s competitors as well. South Dakota State University will again be the prohibitive preseason favorite to repeat with the return of their big man, Mike Daum. However, his sidekick last year, Reed Tellinghausen, graduated and the Pioneers have the size this year to limit Daum in tournament play. Perennial Summit League second fiddle, South Dakota lost their outstanding head coach Craig Smith and superstar Matt Mooney transferred to Texas Tech. Fort Wayne’s best player, Bryson Scott, graduated and took his 22.4 ppg. with him. The University of North Dakota lost their best player, Geno Crandall and his 16.6 points to Gonzaga and Oral Roberts lost an emerging star Javon White to Clemson.

Other teams lost key players as well to graduation – including DU losing Daniel Amigo (15.3 ppg) and Jake Pemberton (11.1 ppg). However, one thing is clear with these changes – the Summit League is more open than it has been in a long time and the University of Denver has a chance to take advantage of this opportunity with their depth and roster construction.

Expect the nonconference schedule to be a bumpy ride as Billups and his staff integrate the two grad transfers with five freshmen. Add several tough road foes, and the Pioneers will emerge with 8-10 wins during their 14-game non-conference schedule. Road games against Kansas State, Wyoming, California-Irvine, and Gonzaga will be challenges but most of their remaining ten games are very winnable. But the primary goal of the non-conference schedule is to integrate the seven new scholarship players and gear up for conference play. Denver’s nonconference record is of little real consequence this season. Per usual, the only path to the postseason for the Pioneers is by winning the Summit League Tournament.

But what will the conference portion of the season look like for Denver? There are 16 games and Denver must get 11 to 12 wins to pull into the second spot. This is critical because, during the conference tournament, the second place finisher plays one fewer game and will likely face the South Dakota State Jackrabbits in the Summit League Championship final. DU must take care of home games and split their games on the road and steal an additional game or two to put themselves in position for a tournament run.

Assuming South Dakota State is the regular season top-dog, Denver, South Dakota, and North Dakota State will be battling for the second seed. It is likely to come down to the last several games before one of these three teams earns the second seed. This is critical for Denver because their path to the final will be much easier with a two seed, competing in hostile territory, Sioux Falls. The Pioneers must make hay during conference play to make school history and place them opposite South Dakota State University in the playoff bracket.

2018-19 Preseason Summit League Player of the Year
Mike Daum – South Dakota State

Preseason All-Summit League First Team
Mike Daum – South Dakota State, Sr., F (23.9 ppg/10.3 rpg/1.3 apg)*
Trey Burch-Manning – South Dakota, Sr., F (8.7 ppg/6.7 rpg/1.5 apg)
Zach Jackson – Omaha, Sr., G (17.6 ppg/6.4 rpg/0.9 apg)
David Jenkins, Jr. – South Dakota State, So., G (16.1 ppg/3.2 rpg/1.6 apg)
John Konchar – Purdue Fort Wayne, Sr., G (14.8 ppg/8.1 rpg/4.8 apg)
Joe Rosga – Denver, Sr., G (16.1 ppg/4.1 rpg/2.9 apg)

Preseason All-Summit League Second Team
Brandon Gilbeck – Western Illinois, Sr., C (10.8 ppg/7.1 rpg/2.6 bpg)
Tyler Hagedorn – South Dakota, Sr., F (13.0 ppg/5.9 rpg/1.1 apg)
Emmanuel Nzekwesi – Oral Roberts, Jr., F (12.7 ppg/7.2 rpg/ 1.7 apg)
Tyson Ward – North Dakota State, Jr., G (11.8 ppg/5.9 rpg/2.6 apg)
Kobe Webster – Western Illinois, So., G (15.9 ppg/4.1rpg/3.5 apg)
*Preseason player of the year automatically earns a spot on the first team

Preseason Poll

Place Team (First-Place Votes) Points
1. South Dakota State (34) 570
2. South Dakota (1) 470
3. Denver (1) 454
4. Purdue Fort Wayne 384
5. North Dakota State 280
6. Oral Roberts 215
7. North Dakota 186
8. Omaha 177
9. Western Illinois 161

Let’s assume Denver can earn the two seed and face South Dakota State in the Summit League finals, why is there reason to expect the Pioneers can compete? Well, 6’9″ Mike Daum makes a living playing outside-in. No big man in the Summit can control Daum. He can hit the 3-point shot and when defenders pull up to guard him, he can drive by for the easy bucket. However, Ronnie Harrell, Jr. is one of the few athletes that are athletic enough to contain Daum on the perimeter and make him also work on the defensive end. Should Daum make it past Harrell, he faces Tory Miller-Stewart inside with equal size and solid athleticism. Without Tellinghausen as a proven secondary scoring threat for the Jackrabbits, Daum can be held in check without DU having to over-commit other defensive resources. Add DU’s new beef in the middle with returnees Jake Krafka, Abiola Akintola and Donoven Carlisle and the Pioneers have the front-line resources to finally throw at SDSU.

The Pioneers are legitimate contenders with a 50/50 chance against South Dakota State University in essentially their own gym.  It won’t be easy – but this year’s team has the talent to make history. And having a four-star and three-star graduate transfer is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity (literally) for DU hoops. Pioneer basketball fans should have high expectations for this team.

So are we telling you there is a chance? Hell yeah we are!