Photo: Rodney Billups. DU coach Rodney Billups is in year four of his five year contract. Photo: University of Denver
“It’s not working”
“It’s been four years – DU’s record is getting worse each year”
“He’s in over his head”
“High school programs draw more fans”
We’ve all heard all these complaints before, and all of these statements have an element of truth to them. And, we continue to want to hear your voices – even if you may disagree with us.
We’ll be honest – we don’t like what we’re seeing, either. We’re die-hard DU fans, and our Pioneer men’s basketball program is indeed struggling, big time. We’re concerned. We see the losses mounting (now 10 straight) and the fans staying away. And the chances for landing in the Summit cellar for a second consecutive season appear likely.
Why should the head coach be defended?
Here’s are our five reasons why I, (and other staff here at LetsGoDU), think Billups should have more time to guide Denver men’s hoops:
1. DU Family Loyalty– Yes, hiring Billups, a DU alumnus, comes with an extra obligation that goes beyond the mercenary reality of hiring many Division I coaches in this country. The people who run this blog are alums, too. As fellow Pioneers, we bleed Crimson and Gold just as Billups does, and believe we owe Rodney every reasonable opportunity to turn the program around. Cutting off a fellow hardworking Pioneer before his contract is up is just wrong and sends a message that DU doesn’t give its coaches a full shot. If non-alum Kerry Cremeans could post a .278 winning percentage as DU’s women’s coach over her five year tenure (which ended in 2017), the least DU can can do is keep its alumnus Billups (currently at a .398 winning percentage) for his full contract, sending an important message to the coaching world that DU honors its full contracts for its hires. He was a great player and student at DU. He didn’t forget how to play/coach basketball over the past two seasons.
2. Young Team with Promise: The current team has only one senior and a single junior, who transferred in this year. They are very young and young teams typically take their lumps in college basketball. We knew this would be a tough season when we presented our pre-season analysis of this year’s squad, and the Summit League coaches picked DU to finish last. So, the current season is pretty much as predicted so far. That said, we do see flashes of talent in these young players. Big men David Nzekwesi and Robert Jones both have the potential to be dominant big men in the Summit League. Nzekwesi, a sophomore, needs to refine his physique, show a harder work ethic and get his conditioning right so he can play effectively for longer stretches. Freshman Robert Jones needs time and experience to win battles under the basket against more experienced players. And sophomore Jase Townsend continues to stack up 20+ point games with strong shooting and a solid floor game. These are talented players (that other good hoops schools wanted) and that a coach can build around. We’d also like to see a bigger developmental jump from sophomores such as Joe Lanzi, Alperen Kurnaz, and Taelyr Gatlin, who should be delivering more impact than they are. This is on them as much as it is the coaches.
3. New Assistant Coaches: While this is Rodney’s first head coaching job, his first set of assistants, Ricardo Patton and Steve Snell, are no longer with the program. Frankly, the recruiting job they did looks somewhat underwhelming at this point, and it remains to be seen how many recruits will become legitimate NCAA D-I basketball players. The new assistants, Bacari Alexander and Raman Sposato, have already helped to change the culture of DU basketball. The defense has improved, particularly on three-pointers (from worst in the league to best in the league), which has forced opponents to try and beat the Pioneers in the paint. Unfortunately, the paint is where the Pioneers are very inexperienced right now. We’re also seeing DU fighting to be competitive in every game, taking many opponents into the final minutes before the inexperienced Pioneers usually don’t have the experience to close out wins. On the offensive end, field goal percentage has been down significantly, but it does not appear that shot selection is the major problem – and shot selection is all about coaching. We believe that this staff, with more time, will close those gaps.
4. Eye test: This is a softer observation but we like the attitude and fight of this team. They are not hanging their heads or pouting on the bench. The effort level is high on the floor and they encourage each other. We also like the increased fight by Billups and his assistants to challenge players and even referees. A 10-game losing stretch would tear most team’s apart but these guys seem to have their head in the game. Finally, we have heard from reliable sources that, with very few exceptions, these are good student-athletes. Just like the Joe Scott days, DU is bringing in kids that will not embarrass us in the classroom or off the court. If we really want DU basketball to improve over time, we need consistency from coaches and Denver needs to retain a solid core of student-athletes. With transfer mania happening with most basketball programs, Denver is retaining these players because they want to be here.
5. Athletic Excellence Takes Time: This DU athletic department is known for excellence across almost all its teams, and that excellence puts a bit more peer pressure on the basketball programs to be great. The truth is that DU’s athletics programs are excellent because DU invests the money that it takes to be great in many sports. For example, Hockey and Lacrosse are resourced at the top level of those sports among all schools. Basketball is not resourced for national prominence, but is resourced for Summit League excellence. With the state of DU hoops as it stands today, the athletic department has the most to lose in reputation and money. They see the basketball coaches, staff and players every day and are best suited to make an evaluation of the program. If they are willing to support Rodney using their best judgment, their track record with other sports programs proves they know what they are doing. We’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. That being said, we understand why many fans are frustrated, but we often forget DU’s basketball historic struggles extend well before Rodney Billups.
In the meantime, we hope DU can give Rodney all the help he needs to do his job, and Pio fans should get behind him, as we are here at LetsGoDU. We came out early in favor of alum David Carle before he was selected as the head hockey coach to succeed Jim Montgomery. He inherited a rock-solid program and continues that excellence. Rodney did not inherit a culture of positivity and consistent winning. Given time and support, we believe Rodney can develop a squad that can compete for titles in the Summit League.
And, rest assured, we will continue to accurately report what happens on the court to the best of our ability, good or bad, so you can draw your own conclusions.