Photo: Courtesy of goseattleu.com
There were few happy endings for the Denver Pioneers at the Elgin Baylor Classic as they dropped their final game to Fairfield and could only win one game out of three at the tournament. Despite the outcome, there were some positive signs for the Pioneers (2-4) but plenty of room to improve.
Absent three starters (Joe Rosga and Jake Krafka – rolled ankles, Tory Stewart-Miller – injured wrist), there were three to four freshmen on the floor for Denver most of the tournament – and the first-year players contributed along the way. Like most freshmen, their offensive consistency and interior defense were off-and-on all weekend but Joe Lanzi, David Nzekwesi, Jase Townsend, Taylr Gatlin, and Alperin Kurnaz got meaningful minutes and contributed in extended action.
In addition, sophomore Elvin Rodriquez got solid minutes during the weekend and showed production and confidence playing the point for Denver. None of that would have happened without the opportunities created by the missing starters. This unexpected floor time could pay dividends down the road for a team filled with five freshmen and loads of inexperience.
If you’re a skeptic, you have every reason to be disappointed in the Pioneers’ showing in the northwest. Expectations were sky high to begin the season and a close call at Kansas State only served to raise them. While this tournament tortured Pioneer fans in the short term, it just may deliver benefits in the long term.
Denver got roasted in game one against Seattle, 82-63. It was an embarrassing loss with few positives – the hosts from the Emerald City had their way with the overmatched guests. The contest against Seattle U was supposed to be a “measuring stick game” for both programs – and Denver came up woefully short. Denver basically raised the white flag at halftime and emptied the bench. Two freshmen, Jase Townsend and Talyr Gatlin, had 11 and 10 points respectively – but that’s where the positives ended.
BACK TO BACK MEANS THREES OH MORGAN DON'T DO IT TO 'EM!
Seattle U | 46
Denver | 33
— Seattle U Men's Basketball (@seattleumbb) November 23, 2018
In game two, DU slipped by Longwood, 64-62, on a strong 23 point performance by Ronnie Harrell, Jr. All five freshman played while collectively posting 68 total minutes of playing time on the floor. Freshman Taylr Gatlin led the newcomers with 8 points, 2 rebounds, and 1 steal.
In game three, DU fell to Fairfield by one in a tight contest. Freshman big man David Nzekwesi scored 17 points and had 5 rebounds in just 17 minutes, showcasing the future of the pivot for DU. Rodrigues chipped in with 16 points and 3 rebounds while getting more comfortable running the offense. DU showed toughness coming back from a 17 point deficit – but fell in the waning minutes, 86-85. The inability of Ronnie Harrell, Jr. to get off a shot for a potential win with 4.5 seconds remaining was a major disappointment – especially considering his experience.
Looking back, it is fair for fans to believe that, despite injuries, Denver should have easily defeated both Longwood and Fairfield. Still, all five freshmen played in all three games and contributed in meaningful ways.
On the downside, with three starters out for the tournament, more consistent play from Ronnie Harrell, Jr., Ade Murkey, Abiola Akintola, and Donoven Carlisle would have helped DU’s cause. All four players had their ups-and-downs during the three-day tournament. The Pioneers had double-digit turnovers in each game. That is far too many, especially when missing three starters.
When Miller-Stewart, Rosga, and Krafka return, Denver will have more experienced back-ups to provide some relief and production. A Denver basketball program short on actual victories can rightfully cling to the hope of new found depth.
It doesn’t get any easier for the Pioneers when they return home to play Northern Colorado (3-1) at Magness Arena this Wednesday, November 28th at 7:00 MT. Like Denver, UNC is projected to finish 3rd in their conference (Big Sky) after winning the CIT Tournament last season and going 26-12.