Denver Men’s Hoops 2019-2020 Season Preview: Reset & Refocus

Photo: Denver Pioneers Basketball

After a last-place finish in the Summit League a year ago, the Pioneers were picked by conference coaches to finish in the cellar once again this season. Not exactly what DU hoops fans want to hear. This season will be a reboot with new assistant coaches, four freshmen, three junior college transfers and just two upperclassmen.

Fan patience is wearing thin. But if the season goes as planned, these players will be the foundation of a squad that will hopefully, compete for a conference title in the following two years. It will not be pretty or easy to watch at times, but intensity, attitude, and energy don’t require skill or experience and Pioneer fans will demand all three in a rebuilding season.

DU’s hockey team used a theme last season with a young new head coach David Carle and a number of new faces with their ‘Prove Them Wrong’ slogan. That chip on their shoulder carried them to their third Frozen Four in four years. While it’d be a fool’s errand to expect an elite performance from DU basketball this season, expect them to play hard and improve on last season’s performance and effort (8-22, 3-13 Summit League) when they struggled all season and missed the conference tournament in Sioux Falls.

Season Prediction

With a brutal nonconference schedule, do not look for this team to come out of the gate strong. They should be able to pull out two to four wins against nonconference foes. During conference play, it would be reasonable to project 5-6 wins. This team will likely finish with 7-10 wins for the season, very similar to last season’s record.

But expect to see improvements on the defensive end with the addition of DU Assistant Coach Bicari Alexander who successfully taught defense to the University of Michigan Wolverines who advanced to NCAA Tournament play five times in the six years Alexander was there. But, with 11 of 13 DU players being freshmen or sophomores, there will be a lot of teaching to do this season.

Billups is open about the disappointment of last season when he frankly states, “I don’t have to coach effort (this season).” And, Billups looks to the upcoming season as an opportunity for personal redemption, “There were a lot of decisions that were made last year in our locker room and decisions I made. That is now gone. Our guys will use the 8-22 (record) as motivation. I am excited to wash this taste out of my mouth.”

He is looking for his only senior Ade Murkey to step up his consistency and sophomore Jase Townsend to lead the team beyond the arc with skills that translate to all three levels on the floor. And, Billups sees opportunities to improve on a porous defense, “We’ve got to guard the 3-point line. We were ninth in the Summit League in 3-point defense (last season).”

The team took a Navy Seal training course and enjoyed dinners at Rodney Billups to build on the team chemistry that was missing last season.

Keys to improvement:

Defense, Defense, Defense

Move to 159 or better in these five NCAA statistical categories:

Critical Performance Indicators (KPI’s) 2018-2019 – Rank (DU vs NCAA)
Turnover Margin 320/351
Scoring Margin 326/351
Field Goal % Defense 328/351
Three Point Field Goal Defense 351/351
Assists to turnovers 305/351

The Five Sophomores must step-up

David Nzekwesi, Jase Townsend, Taelyr Gatlin, Alperen Kurnaz, and Joseph Lanzi must all step up in their production and consistency in their second season under Billups to fill the void of upperclassmen on the roster.

Billups stated that David Nzekwesi has the tools to be “the best player in the Summit League”. Now, it is up to the Denver Staff and Nzekwesi to realize that potential with a solid 2019-2020 campaign.

Diamond in the rough

Can Denver develop some surprise size, scoring and defense with the addition of front-line newcomers 6’9″ Tristan Green (JC Transfer), freshman 6’6″ Jovonni Bickham and 6’10” freshman Robert Jones who are new to the roster, especially during the second half of the season?

Consistent Rotation

The coaching staff must develop a consistent rotation, instead of playing deep into their bench, and develop a solid core of cohesive starters and role bench players. This may disappoint some players who remain on the bench but floor time must be earned this season. If DU is going to break the grip of a losing cycle, they must develop a solid core of starting DI players with adequate playing time to grow and develop.

Energy & Effort

If the season goes as predicted, there will be bumps along the way. Can the coaching staff and players provide energy and effort when things are not going their way on the scoreboard? Fans will reward energy and effort and give this team time to grow. But a repeat of last season’s lackluster floor performance will not be well received.


This season is a reset year with a squad short on experience. With only two upperclassmen on this year’s squad, we see 7-10 wins for the 2019-2020 squad. But, their success will, ultimately, be measured by their improvement on the defensive end which will allow them to keep games close.

Short term, expect to see greater effort and intensity on the defensive end and improved offensive chemistry as the season progresses. Longer-term, this roster must be comprised of players who ultimately have the capability to win a conference title during their time at DU. In the interim, progress must be made against the five Critical Performance Indicators as the season progresses. These five statistics will be much more important than wins and losses this season.

The Pioneer men’s season begins November 5th at Colorado State with a return home against Utah State November 9th. A free exhibition will be held on November 1st against Johnson & Wales in Hamilton Gym.

Basketball season tickets will be ready for pick up this Friday, October 25th from 5:30pm to 8pm, at the Ritchie Center on the west concourse. Tickets that are not picked up in person will be mailed on Monday, October 28th (unless marked will call during the renewal process).The evening events will include:

  • Opportunity to meet the Men’s and Women’s basketball teams from 5:30pm-7pm. A Coffee/Hot Chocolate bar and Cookies will be provided while you get to know the teams.
  • Free tickets to DU Volleyball vs. Purdue Fort Wayne at 7 pm.

8 thoughts on “Denver Men’s Hoops 2019-2020 Season Preview: Reset & Refocus”

  1. Great analysis, but you set a low level of success for this year. The Summit League is weak enough where if we don’t finish close to .500 in league play, we are a pretty terrible basketball team. We need to at least win enough games to qualify for the Summit League Tournament. That’s the bottom of my hopes. Hoping Bickham and Jones exceed expectations and help us win some unexpected games. I agree with coach that David N. should be a star.

  2. I’ve heard that DU is working on a whole new “help side” oriented defensive concept that should hopefully reduce the perimeter defensive problems that happened last year.

    Additionally, I am hoping Billups and his team can radically redefine the team’s culture. Last year’s culture was obviously terrible as Billups pointed out in the league press conference a few weeks ago, and hopefully, that culture is gone now with all the graduations and transfers and old assistants going out, coupled with all new assistant coaches and a bunch of new players this season coming in. Perhaps that SEAL training will help them with generating better team chemistry, accountability and toughness.

    I think Billups probably has two years left to get DU into a winning program.

    Right now, I am hoping he can do it…

    1. Hard to pin down a starting five, but here’s my take-a-stab guess at it:

      C- David Nzekwesi – He is DU’s most talented young player at 6-9, but his motivation is a question mark according to his head coach. Once he drops some weight, understands his capabilities and believes in himself, he could be unstoppable. He’s going to see a lot of playing opportunity in the middle. 6-10 freshman Robert Jones is likely the backup center this year, who should also see significant playing minutes, as Nzekwesi often gets tired. Jones was well-recruited by larger programs. Jones or Nzekwesi can also move over into the PF slot if DU’s other projected PFs don’t play well.

      SG – Ade Murkey – Listed as a guard, Murkey is DU’s most athletic player at 6-5, and is now DU’s senior leader. He’s very versatile and is DU’s heart-and-soul player. I could see also Murkey end up playing some small forward this year as DU is very thin on college experience up front, which would also free up more playing time for Jase Townsend as the starting shooting guard. Expect Jase Townsend to play a lot this year as SG, as he is DU’s best shooter and stands to take a huge leap in his role this year as perhaps the most under-rated player in the Summit League. There is also 22 year old junior transfer (he’ll turn 23 in December) Ray Kowalski – a good shooter and who will likely add his experience here in a backup SG role behind Townsend, or as least as Team Grandpa.

      PG: Taelyr Gatlin is DU’s best ball handler/distributor, and has a nice, arcing shot as well. Murkey can also take the ball up-court. Joe Lanzi played the point in high school and can also handle the ball well enough to be an option here, especially when Murkey or Gatlin need a rest. Lanzi can also play shooting guard, too. There are also some newcomers to mention here. I haven’t seen Khalil Johnson or Roscoe Eastmond play yet, so I don’t know if/how they figure in the depth chart at the guard position, either shooting or point. My guess is that both guys are headed for backup roles this year, although what do I know?

      SF: The Pioneers are not very deep at forward, so I expect both the small and power forward spots to be up for grabs this year. If he’s not playing guard, than Ade Murkey is the most experienced guy that DU can put up front as a SF. If Murkey is playing at guard, then we’ll probably see newcomers Owen McGlashan (6-7) or Javonni Bickham (6-6) in this SF slot. McGlashan is also listed as a guard, but with Murkey, Townsend, Gatlin, Lanzi and Kowalski taking up most of the guard time, I see the 6-7 McGlashan as more likely to play up front. Bickham is a mystery man who hasn’t played competitive ball in while due to injury, but he’s said to be quite talented. We’ll see. I’m guessing that Bickham and McGlashan are the small forwards based on height, but again, I’m just a blowhard in a turban.

      PF: Alperen Kurnaz at 6-8 is the only returner in the power slot, but as a returning soph, he has yet to really prove himself as a D-I threat, as he was inconsistent last year in limited minutes. I expect Kurnaz to battle with Tristan Green, a 6-9 sophomore JUCO transfer who was a three-star (ESPN top 150) high school recruit in 2017, before riding the bench on a talented JUCO roster in Texas last year. This position is the biggest question mark on the team, IMHO. If Kurnaz and Green can’t cut it at PF, than perhaps you might see Jones or Nzekwesi move over to play this PF slot while the other one plays in the middle.

      There you have it – take it for what it’s worth – not much!

      1. Thanks for the starting five analysis Puck Swami!!! The thought of Nzekwesi, Jones, Murkey, Townsend and Gatlin all on the court at the same time could create some real mismatches with two true bigs and three such athletic guards! The exhibition game on 11/1 should be interesting to see the returning players and all the new faces! Is it a ticketed event or is it free to the public? Go Pioneers!!!

  3. The 11/1 Johnson and Wales exhibition in Hamilton Gym is free to the public as far as I know, with general admission seating.

    Personally, I am not all a fan of playing D-II opponents (ever), nor playing any public games in essentially practice gyms like Hamilton. It just cheapens the overall perception of the product, and the risk of losing to a D-II program is never a good look. I remember DU getting whipped by D-II Colorado Christian in Hamilton exhibition some years ago and that was ugly…

    While these kind of games might help the coaches determine player and team dynamics, I would rather DU scrimmage a D-I opponent behind closed doors for these purposes. Show us the product when it’s fully baked…

  4. Interesting, but also unsettling, times for men’s hoops. Rewind to a year ago and the outlook was rosy. There were lofty expectations and a lot of optimism, especially after a very competitive and spirited showing against Kansas State, a top-20 team. After that, the season was largely a train wreck. I felt badly for the team and coaches as the season wound down, as the crowds dwindled and dwindled, but there wasn’t much to cheer about. Obviously expectations are quite a bit different for 2019-20.

    I have no idea how many games this team might win. I won’t even venture a guess. What I will say is I’m hoping to see a team that gels quickly and develops some chemistry, is cleaner from a fundamentals standpoint, and has some players step forward and be leaders out there on the court, regardless of age or class. Most of all, though, I’m hoping to see a squad that plays hard and competes for 40 minutes, especially defensively, and has some fun out there. Give the fans something to cheer about.

    I don’t know anyone who isn’t rooting hard for Billups to be successful as a coach here. But the honeymoon is over. He needs to prove he’s the right man for the job.

    Go Pios!!

  5. For the PF slot, I am hearing that Tristan Green has been very good in practice. He could easily be a starter or the first off the bench to spell the starters up-front.

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