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.

7 thoughts on “Denver Athletics’ elephant in the room”

  1. Thoughtful and well-reasoned article that captures DU’s fragile men’s basketball situation quite well. Here’s my plan to turn things around:

    1. DEFENSE: DU must hire a very experienced D-I defensive specialist assistant coach, preferably with some head coaching experience, who can help Rodney get his kids to play competent college-level defense this year. Pay this coach very well so he feels invested here. A better defense is priority one, and it must be addressed today.

    2. GET SOME LOCAL RECRUITS – The one thing Billups has not yet done at DU is recruit a quality local freshman who will bring fans into the gym, get the local media excited and create more connection between DU and the local hoops community. I know Colorado is a poor recruiting area, but UNC had a winning program (.750 last year) with seven Colorado kids on the team. Even Joe Scott had a number of local kids on his rosters who were strong contributors – Sterling, Byrd, Pemberton, etc. That doesn’t mean the majority of the team needs to be from here, but getting the community to care is certainly helped by attracting players who have those deeper community connections.

    3. RE-FOCUS SCHEDULING PHILOSOPHY – DU’s scheduling needs more work. No one wants to see D-II teams at Magness. Ever. Start playing more non-league teams that have at least some decent level of college brand recognition. We know that Duke and Michigan State aren’t ever coming to Magness, but let’s at least get some non-league teams in here that people have actually heard of such as Ivy League schools, service academies, and bottom half schools from larger conferences, etc. If it means paying more money to get them here, do it. This is a battle for relevance, and fans here are just not going to get excited to see DU host Abilene Christian or Western State.

    1. DU Basketball sunk the day DU dropped Football. Conferences and low tier competition have combined for pathetic apathy! RIP Chester Alter

      1. You and I have been round and round on the DU football argument, Aaron. There is quite a bit of truth to your argument that DU lost some national visibility, went to lower conference affiliation and lost school spirit when football was dropped in 1961. Once the on-campus Hilltop Stadium was torn down in the 1970s, the chances of bringing it back pretty much nailed down the coffin lid on a comeback. DU knew it was facing a losing battle for big-time football financially even back then, and given how far DU eventually fell financially as university in the ’70s and ’80s, I don’t think the sport would have been able to survive that era either as a varsity sport.

        There may come a day where DU has the financial resources make DU varsity football possible again, but given the cultural fit, the long-term money-suck of it at most schools, the oversaturated, Broncos-centric market here, the lack of room for an on-campus venue, the below-average recruiting area we are in, the long-term concussion/medical liability issues the game faces, and the lack of current campus-wide appetite for it, I just don’t see it happening at DU, unless a $100+ million donor specifies it as a gift condition. And I don’t see a Pioneer league, D-I non-schalorship model working here to generate much spectator interest, either.

        And if there is a major windfall of new money earmarked for athletics from big donor (s) in the coming years, I’d rather see DU investing it in the sports menu we have now, in sports that can actually succeed here, as well as increased visitor travel incentives, guarantees and conference buy-in fees to enable DU’s move to a more attractive conference and buy better non-league opponents for hoops. With enough money on the table, conferences interest will follow.

  2. Good article. The reasons for last season’s debacle have been discussed quite a bit, so no need to go there again. The bottom line for me is DU missed a huge opportunity to galvanize the local fan base and build excitement around the program. I know injuries played a role, but it was a bad product, hard to watch, and leaves very little room for optimism heading into next season. Furthermore, and I’m just an outsider looking in, but the transfers and the departure of two members of the coaching staff suggest turmoil in the program and a lack of confidence in Billups. Not a good look.

    I live in the neighborhood. I’m certainly not suggesting Magness Arena is one step away from being Cameron Indoor, but there are fans to be had here. I know a lot of folks in the neighborhood, and they will go watch college basketball if the product is decent. It’s affordable, can be a great family outing, and builds community spirit. But the program has to do something to generate interest and get people in the building. At the very least, the athletic marketing folks should be dreaming up some damn good promotions for next season, especially for families.

    1. Good points, as always, Twister. My guess is the DU assistants’ departures are pretty much standard operating procedure for an underachieving program that was picked for third and finished last, going into year four. It is basically a warning shot to the head coach from the administration that they are unhappy with the direction of the program and change is needed. Patton is close to retirement age and was close to departing last year, but stuck around for last season and now he’s an advisor to the head coach at Vanderbilt, in his home state of Tennessee. I believe Steve Snell is headed to Ohio University in the MAC, so an upgrade for him. Both are experienced coaches and good men and I wish them well.

      Joe Scott’s assistants Mike McKee and AJ Kuhle were fired the year before Scott was given his walking papers by DU. Rodney’s likely on the clock now, especially now that these are his players in year four.

      I really hope Rodney can find the magic and show some serious progress this year…

  3. Great article, 5BWest

    Food for thought.

    Denver Wins (Ascending Opponent RPI):
    1. NDSU (166)
    2. Montana St (239)
    3. Longwood (297)
    4. Oral Roberts (302)
    5. Wyoming (329)
    6. Western Ill (335)
    7. Maine (336)

    Losses (Descending RPI):
    -Western Illinois (335)
    -Fairfield (328)
    -Oral Roberts (302)
    -North Dakota x2 (299)
    -South Dakota x2 (270)
    -Air Force (230)
    -IPFW x2 (221)
    -Seattle (213)
    -NDSU (166)
    -Northern Colorado (157)
    -SDSU x2 (128)
    -Abilene Christian (127)
    -Omaha x2 (125)
    -Utah Valley (68)
    -UC Irvine (60)
    -Kansas St (18)
    -Gonzaga (8)

    The above is simply to put into context why DU ended with an RPI of 321.
    Finishing below 300 is objectively terrible especially when you go look at the other programs in the same boat (DU sandwiched between St. Peters and Jackson St.). However the gravest indictment of last season were the 10 double-digit losses to conference opponents as well as two complete blowouts by North Dakota, one by South Dakota, and another by Western Illinois. Those are scenarios that should rarely happen and never more than once in a single season. Especially with DU’s roster that indicates a lack of effort and/or coaching. Those are bad teams. It doesn’t help that DU also made headlines by losing by 61 to Gonzaga, and lost to both in-state foes who should on paper have a harder time recruiting.

    There is nothing to be said that hasn’t been already about the state of DU basketball. I don’t understand why a program with these resources can’t consistently compete for the Summit and occasionally get top 100 RPI wins. I wanted Billups to succeed as he is a stand up gentleman and very likable, but clearly unless a massive step gets taken in the right direction DU needs to move on. It’s fantastic that Hockey, Lacrosse and more recently Gymnastics have been crushing it but purely from a publicity standpoint the DU basketball team making the dance once is arguably more important than anything those programs can accomplish. The success of basketball is paramount. I hope they can turn it around.

  4. Great analysis, PioJack. As you show, last season was a disaster by nearly every measure. Based on resources and school, it is hard to argue why DU is not competing for a conference championship every several years. This next season will be a big one for Rodney and his staff. I hope they can show progress.

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