Photo Credit: Jason Evans
Denver’s mid-season record is 4-10. Many fans are, of course, disappointed with the record and it’s understandable. But, Denver Basketball is exactly where we predicted this young team would be following a difficult non-conference schedule.
So, we went back, re-read our LetsGoDU season preview and can now evaluate the team’s progress heading into Summit League play which starts December 28th against conference favorite North Dakota State University at Magness Arena.
We predicted 2-4 wins during non-conference play. This Denver team is chock-full of inexperienced underclassmen with only one senior, Ade Murkey. We identified five key performance indicators (KPIs) to monitor the team’s progress this season against last season. We challenged them to move toward the middle of the pack of the 351 Division I basketball programs. Despite their youth, they have made stubborn progress against a poor turnover margin and scoring margin. They are break-even vs prior year on the assist-to-turnover ratio. The biggest area for improvement has been three-point shooting defense – currently 83rd in the nation at defending the three.
|Turnover Margin||320||273||plus 47|
|Scoring Margin||326||315||plus 11|
|Field Goal %/Defended||328||305||plus 33|
|3-Pt. FG Defense||351||83||plus 268|
|Assist to Turnover Ratio||305||305||Even|
While Denver still resides well below average on 4/5 of these KPIs, they are improving – but not as much as hoped. The challenge for the remainder of the season is going to be continuous improvement during conference play following what was fairly labeled a ‘brutal’ non-conference schedule.
But, with 11 of 13 DU players either freshmen or sophomores, Billups and his new staff are working with a green squad. Allowing 45.5% shooting from the field, Denver has been vulnerable to points in the paint. And slow starts to games have put the Pios in early holes. Free throws percentage, currently 64.1%, should be in the 70s. Off the court, Billups has added two new assistant coaches (Bicari Alexander & Raman Sposato), which another cause of early-season struggles.
Excuses? Yes. But the truth as well.
The shining lights so far have been Ade Murkey and Jase Townsend. Senior Ade Murkey has upped his game and, more importantly, his consistency this season with 14.7 ppg and 5.2 rebounds. During the preseason coaches’ Summit League meeting, Rodney Billups also talked about the important role sophomore shooting guard Jase Townsend would play this season. Jase has shown great progress with 14.6 ppg and 4.9 rebounds per game. The other four sophomores on the roster have been inconsistent with big man David Nzekwesi under-performing the most vs his skill set (7.4 ppg and 4.4 rebounds). The other three sophomores – Taelyr Gatlin, Joseph Lanzi, and Alperen Kurnez are struggling to find consistency – especially on the offensive. Earlier, we cited the importance of this sophomore class to the future success of Denver basketball. So far, their contributions have been mixed.
A pleasant addition has been under-sized freshman point guard Roscoe Eastmond. While better suited for change of pace and spot duty, he has seen a number of minutes, many times at the expense of sophomore point guard Tealyr Gatlin. Newcomers Tristan Green and Robert Jones have picked up front-line minutes off the bench during key periods. Ray Kowalski and Javonni Bickham have also both contributed in spots. But DU’s interior defense has been soft, giving up too many points-in-the-paint.
The keys to the conference season improvement are fairly simple – but not easy to execute. There are six areas:
- DU must improve their interior defense. That means limiting points-in-the-paint. Denver’s big men, as a group, need to step up if DU is going to exceed expectations during league play.
- Unless big man David Nzekwesi plays up to his potential, there is little chance of significant improvement to DU’s current record. His skills, when properly utilized on the offense and defensive ends, can be ‘difference makers’ for this team. His output has regressed vs. last season and his conditioning is sub-par. According to Billups, “He has the best tools in the Summit League” – if/when he wants to do so. There is no better time than now.
- Taelyr Gatlin needs to take ownership of the primary point guard role and improve Denver’s assist-to-turnover-ratio. He must prove his value on both ends of the floor and be the primary floor general. While freshman Roscoe Eastmond is fast and flashy, his size, defensive skills, and inexperience is a short-term detriment as he adapts to DI basketball. His energy is best served in spot duty, off the bench this season.
- Another big man must emerge with reliable production to compliment Nzekwesi. Robert Jones has the tools and appears to have an excellent up-side but he is a freshman. Tristan Green, Roy Kowalski, Owen McGlashan, and Javonnie Bickham are unknown quantities. At least one player from this group needs to take the reins and provide consistency and quality minutes.
- Despite what appears to be a challenging conference season, Denver must keep their confidence and energy up. So far, that has not waned despite ups and downs. It was clear from the beginning of this season that this was going to be bumpy. We sill see 4-5 wins in-conference and that projection still stands. But they can do better than that if some pieces come together.
- Finally, by the conclusion of this season, DU must have identified five Division I starters and 2-3 reliable role players for the 2020-2021 season or this will be a wasted season.
Many fans, for obvious reasons, will evaluate this season based on wins and losses. And that is fair after many years of middling to disappointing results. However, this season still could conclude on a positive note. We are looking for overall team improvement and individual break thru’s – especially from the freshmen and sophomores. DU could win 4-5 games in their final 16 games and actually demonstrate solid progress. Or they could win 4-5 games and show regression. This season, ultimately, will be measured by progress and development of players and their ability to play together.
Attracting fewer than 1,000 fans per game at Magness Arena, this Denver team is going to need to support each other – and stay unified. They were picked last by league coaches based on their youth and inexperience. It’s up to them, as a group, to motivate themselves and make progress in the second half of this season.
There is still a 16-game Summit League sprint before anyone can fairly put a label this on this season.