Photo: Courtesy Mile High Sports
While other basketball teams face tournament play as March gets underway, the University of Denver (8-22, 3-13 Summit League) has begun evaluating this past season and have begun making plans for the 2019-2020 season.
Denver will once again be young next season with a large core of underclassman. In particular, this season’s five freshmen will have a big voice in the future of Denver basketball. Freshman David Nzekwesi is the most intriguing of this class but needs a summer of development and conditioning. Said Billups, “If he decides to get in shape and get his body right during the spring and summer…there are great things to come. He could be one of the better players to ever walk this campus. If he doesn’t do that, he is going to struggle to play multiple minutes.”
Guard Joseph Lanzi is recovering from a hand injury but should be good to go next season. Point guard Taelyr Gatlin got increased playing time at the end of the season and seemed to gain confidence, reduce turnovers and better direct the offense. Power forward Alperen Kurnaz got more playing time, too, but could use an offseason of shooting, conditioning, and defensive practice. Shooting guard Jase Townsend improved on the offensive end of the floor as the past season progressed but he needs to focus on his perimeter defense.
Billups sees them as the future, “We talk to the young guys about being together (on and off the court) and growing together. That’s what we want out of our guys over the next few years.”
The message is clear: This year’s freshman class will be the core of DU’s future and must focus on conditioning and defense this off-season because Denver’s future success depends on their progress.
DU will add three freshmen to the team next season. Center Robert Jones is the most intriguing recruit at 6’9″, 210 pounds. Guard Jaire Eastmond, and shooting forward 6’6″ Mykell Robinson round out the class. Highly sought after power forward Minnesota recruit, 6’8″ Javonnie Bickham, coming off knee surgery, missed this past season and his recovery/status is still uncertain for next season.
The upperclassmen on the squad next season will include junior guard Elvin Rodriquez, junior Donoven Carlisle, senior Ade Murkey and 12th man senior Drew Joiner. Red-shirt senior forward Jake Krafka should be returning for his senior campaign following his injury plagued 2018-2019 season. Of this group, only Krafka and Murkey have had consistent starting minutes. While Carlisle and Rodriguez have flashed, both need to deliver more consistently to earn minutes on the floor. It is also clear that Denver’s ‘experiment’ with grad transfers did not work so do not expect Denver to go that route again any time soon.
More than anything, next year’s squad must make significant improvement on the defensive end. This past season the team struggled on scoring defense (ranked 309 of 351), 3-point defense (351/351), turnover margin (323/351) and scoring margin (326/351). If Denver can become just average in these statistical categories, fans are likely to show patience with the young, inexperienced squad.
“Our players need to learn from this so it doesn’t happen again.” On his team’s resilience and mental toughness,” Billups said, “I hope they understand how hard it is to recover from a loss (going forward). This is the first year as a player and coach that I have lost like this so I have learned what it takes.”
Now, can his players display that same toughness and resilience as well?
Season-ending interview: Tyler Maun and Rodney Billups
It will take an improved product on the floor to gain trust and acceptance by the broader Denver community. However, Billups mentions in his interview with Tyler Maun that DU basketball alumni participated in events during the final weekend of play and a number of conversations centered on how to better engage the community, students and fans, to grow DU basketball brand and gain greater support.
“It was all support – they want what is best for the program and me – which was good to hear. There were conversations about how we can grow it and make basketball more important on campus.” And it is clear, next year will require internal support from key stakeholders to grow the program from within. DU Basketball alumni may be just one of the keys to begin to build a more solid support foundation for DU’s basketball program. Once a solid foundation is set and the product on the floor improves, more casual fans are likely to become engaged.
“I love giving back to the kids and I love teaching the game. Those 2-3 hours in the gym out-weighs all the other stress. This year was work. The last two years was an internship. (This season) I needed Joe Rosga to be more vocal, I needed Tory Stewart Miller and Ronnie Harrell, Jr. to be more vocal with their story and why they are here – and I never got them to conform to what we wanted them to do.”
While it is much too early to make predictions about next season, it is clear that fans want to see an improved defense and a stronger mental effort and resilience from next year’s squad. Those elements are the ‘basics’ that fans should expect – and will demand in 2019-2020.
Billups summed it up pretty well when he said, “It’s been a long year. An emotional year.” No kidding.