Denver Athletics’ elephant in the room

Denver Men’s Basketball.

With perennial national contenders that fill the halls of Ritchie Center, the Denver Athletics program boasts a rich tradition and history of success. And yet, somehow the men’s basketball program has fallen behind and continues to be a puzzle at best. It’s a program that should be able to contend in the Summit League but is showing troubling signs of regression.

Some claim that with DU’s rich hockey tradition, basketball will never prosper at University and Evans, while other DU fans hope basketball never prospers at all, as it may be seen to threaten hockey’s long-standing primacy as DU’s winter flagship sport.  Still others, likely the larger crowd, wish for a day when both sports flourish and cheering crowds flock to Magness Arena in support of both programs. Count us in that latter group.

Others will argue that basketball here is a regional problem, with its dearth of local high school basketball talent and the perception of an insurmountable geographic challenge of recruiting high-level hoops players to Denver.  Indeed, the history of college basketball in this state is mostly poor, not just at DU, but at all five of the Division I schools in this state. And there is also ample evidence that attending college basketball games is not a priority here for fans, with most people just ignoring DU basketball altogether — a minor distraction in a spectator market filled with other more attractive winter entertainment options.

With ’05 alumnus Rodney Billups heading into his fourth season as head coach of DU, many fans are disappointed with last season’s results, with the program seen to be stable his first two seasons and, then, heading in reverse this past season. Indeed, last year’s disastrous last-place season featured key injuries, porous defense and inconsistent offensive play en route to an 8-22 record while missing the Summit League Tournament. Yet, Billups’ first two seasons (from 2016-2018) using mostly previous coach Joe Scott’s players, while playing .500 basketball offered hope that DU hoops was turning the corner and better days were ahead. Despite the poor results of last season and recent changes within the program, it is still reasonable at this point for fans to expect progress going forward.

The turmoil of the past season has bled over into the DU coaching staff. After the season concluded, two of the program’s senior assistant coaches, Ricardo Patton and Steve Snell, departed the program. Billups is now going into year four of his five-year deal, with a roster now comprised of entirely his own recruits, and it’s probably a pretty fair assumption by any around the program that they need to turn the corner – and soon.

But such progress may not be easy to show, as DU has now lost three-fourths of its upperclassmen to transfer as Jake Krafka, Elvin Rodriguez and Donoven Carlisle have all left DU for NCAA Division II playing opportunities in the state of Texas. Krafka chose St. Edwards University near his home in Austin, while Rodriguez and Carlisle both chose Texas-Permian Basin in West Texas. While their departures were not totally surprising considering the copious amount of hoops transfers these days (700+ players/yr. in D-I), the on-court development of Rodriguez and Carlisle while at DU was disappointing. The departure of injured red-shirt senior Jake Krafka is a bigger loss, as he was certain to provide much-needed senior leadership, defense and toughness to a what will be a very young squad. Krafka will at least graduate with his DU class next month and will play his final season of eligibility as a graduate student.

These three new roster holes have added to the usual senior losses and have left the Denver coaches scrambling to fill out their roster late in the recruiting cycle. In an unusual move for Denver, the Pioneers have had to add at least two JUCO transfers this spring. The first is 6’8″ sophomore forward Tristan Green from Texas, who averaged just 2.5 points per game and 1.5 rebounds last season at the JUCO level, certainly puzzling for a highly-sought-after 3-star prep player in his high school career, who appeared in ESPN’s top 50 high school forwards in 2018.  Six fellow players from his successful Ranger (Texas) Community College team were recruited to D-I schools this year, but Green was unable to crack that Ranger lineup consistently, even given his high level of high school hype.

The other JUCO transfer coming to Denver is Khalil Johnson, a sophomore shooting guard from the New York City area by way of Three Rivers (Mo.) College, who averaged just 4.3 points-per-game, 1.5 assists-per-game, and shot 31.6% from 3-point range and 34.4% from the field last season.

By looking at their on-court statistics at the JUCO level, both Green and Johnson have pedestrian numbers at best and appear to be likely reclamation projects more than impact players at the D-I level.  So, it will depend on the DU coaching staff’s (in its own state of flux) ability to develop the untapped potential of these players along with the existing five freshmen who become sophomores next season, as well as the three incoming freshmen (Robert Jones, Jaire Eastmond, and Owen McGlashan).

The other mystery recruit is JaVonni Bickham, a highly-recruited prep player out of the Twin Cities in Minnesota. Once recruited by major programs such as Memphis, UTEP and New Mexico (as well as DU), Bickham had surgery on both knees and missed all of last season. Bickham’s Twitter still shows him coming to DU next season. However, there is no confirmation on Verbal Commits and few confirming words coming out of the Denver camp. If, in fact, Bickham is healthy and can join the Pioneers, he could provide a much-needed boost. However, his status remains quite cloudy.

With only one senior on the roster next season (Ade Murkey), no juniors and a slew of freshmen and sophomores, the Denver coaching staff will have their hands full teaching while trying to generate winning results. Current staffers Dan Ficke, Dwight Thorne and Zach Ruebesam may be in line for one or both of the open higher assistant coaching positions. Or, Denver may look externally to bring in a new assistant(s) to support Billups. No doubt, Denver must improve on the defensive end of the floor and the hope is that any new assistant coaches will have a proven record of coaching defense, as that was clearly the biggest flaw in last season’s team.

Add the large number of scholarship commitments to the freshmen and sophomore classes and the squad has the potential to become not only unbalanced, but inconsistent, as often is the case with young rosters. Also, if Denver is reaching almost anywhere to sign late cycle scholarship players, the team may be potentially bypassing future opportunities to recruit better talent. Now, they must develop their current core of players and show improvement with the talent they have – or the roster potentially turns into a revolving door and results will continue to fall short of expectation. And, no doubt, this past season’s five freshmen got valuable playing time and experience heading into next season. Of the five, David Nzekwesi, Taelyr Gatlin and Jase Townsend showed the most moments of brilliance last year, coupled with expected freshman mistakes, while Joe Lanzi and Alperen Kurnaz have also shown that they can be at least competent players with some upside – but can they develop into a solid team of Division I quality players?

Finally, there is little question that DU fan patience is starting to wear thin – or worse, turning to ambivalence. Home games averaged just high-school sized crowds of 1,200 fans last season, and DU has curtained-off the empty seats at both ends of Magness arena to create a more intimate setting. Even hardcore DU fans are desperately looking for reasons to be optimistic about Denver basketball, but the immediate future poses more questions than answers.

In the understatement of the year, this is an important offseason for the Pios. Denver cannot afford to miss on their assistant coaching decisions or any late roster additions because if they do, the inevitable fan ambivalence will cement the program’s status as Denver Athletics’ afterthought.