Denver Men’s Hoops Mid-Season Review

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.

Season 2018/2019 2019/202 Improvement
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.

Basketball Murkey 2
Senior Ade Murkey has added consistency to his production this season

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.

4 thoughts on “Denver Men’s Hoops Mid-Season Review”

  1. Very good analysis, 5BWest.

    Young teams make mistakes, and this team is going to make a lot of them, especially against those opponents with superior quickness and skill.

    The other thing with young teams is that you see what they could be in flashes, but just not consistently. Some games, they shoot well, but can’t defend the paint. Other games, they shoot poorly, but play solid defense. Or like last game, when their shooting and free throws were terrible, but they played with enough fight to push a local rival to OT anyway.

    So far, we have two guys who are pretty much locks to provide the offense in Murkey and Townsend. Both have stepped up strong this year. But the rest of the cast is basically unreliable in terms of what the coaches can count on. To me, the key is the evolution of Nzekwesi and Jones as the big men in the middle over the next two months of league play. If those two guys can develop to the point of reliable double digit offensive contribution and sold rebounding between them, DU can compete with every team in what is a pretty down Summit League this year. But if they aren’t able to reach a more reliable level of play, then the Pios are likely going to struggle more than they succeed this year.

    Nzekwesi is the biggest enigma to me. He has all the physical tools/gifts to be great and dominant mid-major player. He also says he wants to be able to provide for his family someday as a professional basketball player. Yet, he needs to better develop his hunger and work ethic to sculpt his mind and body to their full potential.The coaches are trying everything they can to get the most out of him and I imagine his teammates must be talking with him as well, but at this level, the motivation must come from within.

    This year, there is more team cohesion and a sense of fight with this bunch that I didn’t see last year. Most of them care about playing hard, at least in the games I’ve seen. There is also some D-I level talent here, but it’s very young talent. Defense has improved this year, especially on the perimeter. Let’s see if they can raise the shooting levels and interior defense to compete in league play.

  2. Who told David N to go on the Mackey/Dunker diet this past summer. Seriously, He should be averaging 11 pts and 5 rpg at the bare minimum. He’s lost some confidence as has Gaitlin. Ade and Jase will have off games scoring just like anyone else and then we are doomed. Summit not very good, but not horrible. Other teams still have athletes, shooters, and solid coaching. (game as evolved so that every coach knows what he’s doing. You can’t sneak up on anyone) I identify our 5 for sure D1 players in no particular order as: Jase, Ade, Roscoe, David N, Jones. (problem HERE. Only 3 can be on the court at a time) Bickham was recruited to make us improve, so let’s see what happens there. Same with McClashan, but his HS play was not stellar. The others will get some minutes, but at many times we get too easy to defend. We don’t have enough consistent scorers. All that said, I’ll stay optimistic. Hopefully the players and coaches do also.

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