Denver Men’s Hoops still control own destiny in Summit League

Denver lost to Gonzaga by 61 points. Denver lost two-thirds of their non-conference games – and DU is being outscored by nearly 10 points per game.

And…it means nothing.

Yes, we said it. All hope is not lost for DU men’s basketball. In fact, Denver’s primary goals for this season are still intact and in clear view. 

Remember the season preview for DU men’s hoops? We broke the season into three parts – non conference, Summit League regular season and Summit League Tournament. They just finished the first part – their non-conference schedule – with a 5-9 record. So, lets take a look at what has happened so far and the prospects for the conference regular season and the Summit League playoffs.

We stated the following in our preseason preview, “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.” 

Well, it has been bumpy – despite our crimson and gold glasses that so many of you like to remind us of, DU’s nine losses came against teams with a cumulative 68% winning percentage (73-34) and their 5 wins came against teams batting 33% (20-39). The freshmen have all gotten considerable playing time. Another factor contributing to a slow start were early season injuries to Joe Rosga, Jake Krafka and newcomer Tory Miller-Stewart. Freshman Jase Townsend had a concussion which forced him to miss a handful of games as well. Jake Krafka, a projected starter, has yet to return to the rotation.

Clearly, injuries have played a major factor in the slow start as well as the, largely unanticipated, quality of DU’s opponents.

The surprise to many fans is the time it has taken for Tory Miller-Stewart and Ronnie Harrell, Jr. to adjust to Denver’s playing style. And surely, they must be surprised as well. However, some of the freshmen such as Taylr Gatlin and Joseph Lanzi look to be immediate  contributors and the other three freshmen recruits appear to have solid upside potential.

These past fourteen games have given coaches plenty of time to assess the two graduate transfers and five freshmen and identify  strengths and weaknesses and establish their roles for the conference season. While it has not been pretty at times, we have seen flashes.

Image result for joseph lanzi Denver
Freshman Joseph Lanzi has been the biggest surprise from the incoming freshman class with 15 minutes per game.

The Pioneers are being outscored 8.7 points per game due to several lopsided contests. Joe Rosga is only averaging 12.0 ppg (below his 16.1 avg. from last season) – but starting to round into playing shape after his injury. Ronnie Harrell, Jr. is leading the Pioneers in scoring with 14.3 ppg. – but with a low 414% shooting touch. Joe and Ronnie must step up during conference play and play up to their potential.

DU is averaging 14.6 turnovers per game (257/351) – way too much for a team with little margin for error. The team is shooting .716 from the charity stripe which places Denver 116th in the country – so improvement could be made in that area as well. A .431 team field goal shooting percentage (257/351) is not nearly good enough either. Shot selection must improve – especially on the perimeter. And the Pioneer defense is allowing 40% shooting from the arc – a fatal statistic that the Pioneers must address.

But, hope is on the way. With the exception of South Dakota State, Denver will not be facing the overall quality of opponents they faced in their non-conference schedule. According to Team Rankings,  the Summit League is having a down year with a conference rank of 27th out of 32 D1 conferences. Denver should be able to compete within the conference. An early road swing against Omaha and Western Illinois should be a good measuring stick as neither team is projected in the top half of the conference.

And, of course, they must simply play better basketball…and they’re perfectly capable and talented enough to do so.

The holiday break could not have come at a better time. In the old days, before automatic sprinklers, coaches would set game film on fire in the locker room to signal their teams to look forward following a bad game or season. Well, Billups and company could use a hammer to destroy the hard drive containing their first 14 games – because it is time to look forward. The only thing lost in the short term is home court fan support with a slow 5-9 start.

But all this could change as the winter temperatures drop – if Denver can heat up on the court, cut down errors and play to their potential.

As a bonus, the Pioneers might just get starter Jake Krafka back during conference play. His return would provide toughness and experience – just the spark DU needs. And his absence inside, especially defensively, is sorely missed.

Also, let’s not forget it has proven difficult to build a winning basketball culture at DU. Remember, in his first two years, Billups had the best start of any DU men’s basketball coach in Denver history. He has another strong recruiting class coming in next season and his five freshman recruits from this season will be a year older. Sure, he is young and learning on the job but he is surrounded by an experienced, veteran coaching staff. Billups does own this season and the past several years – but this group is not responsible for Denver’s checkered basketball history.

So what must DU do in the second part of their season to regain their preseason mojo?

We see five areas for improvement. First, Joe Rosga is the engine for Denver. He does much better on the offensive end working off picks and screens which allow him to square up and get good looks at the basket. Emphasize offensive sets to take advantage of his proven skills. Second, slow down the pace offensively and reduce the turnovers which are giving opponents extra offensive opportunities. Third, Ade Murkey, one of DU’s most skilled players, must step up and play more consistently on both ends of the floor- especially with the absence of Jake Krafka. Fourth, shorten the bench. While this may retard the development of some players, especially freshmen, players need to stay on the floor and play together. Regular rotations push players to ‘own’ what happens when their unit/group is on the floor. Fifth, put the non-conference schedule and results in the rear view mirror. Nearly everything Denver wanted to achieve this year is still in front of the them.

As we said, “The Pioneers must make hay during conference play to make school history and place them opposite South Dakota State University in the playoff bracket.”

While a second place finish ‘feels’ unlikely now based on a 14 game sample size, it still can happen. But Denver must quickly address their shortfalls and inconsistency and get off to a fast start on the road in conference play.

Denver heads to Omaha for the opening of conference play on Friday, December 28th.