Reflecting on Denver’s 2019-2020 Campaign and the Future, Part 1

The basketball season is abruptly over yet again for Denver. The Pioneers see an early exit from tournament play.  This season’s 8th place regular-season finish in the Summit League follows a 9th place finish the season before.

Many fans could care less about DU hoops while others are frustrated or just turned-off. Still a precious few remain cautiously optimistic.

We remain skeptical. Denver basketball must thread the eye of a needle if they expect to turn things around next season – and we’ll tell you why. It can be done but it won’t be easy.

What should Denver basketball fans expect?

Based on the hoops budget, quality of athletic facilities, staff support, campus life and the overall academic quality of the University of Denver, Pioneer men’s basketball should be a Summit League contender nearly every season just like soccer and volleyball. This past season was not good enough. But, let’s also be clear that the current ‘package’ will never take DU to the Gonzaga, Wichita State, San Diego State or St. Mary’s level. That being said, Denver should be a contender in the Summit League, the 22nd ranked basketball conference in the county. Period.

Why is basketball Important?

The reality is that everyone should care for three very important reasons. First, every D1 school must provide women’s and men’s basketball. No conference will allow a full-time member to bypass basketball because it is generally considered a money-maker for athletic departments and conferences. Second, DU is losing money on basketball – and that impacts the entire athletic department. A basketball program that does not break even or make money must take necessary funds from other areas to operate – like DU’s crown jewels of lacrosse, hockey, skiing, and gymnastics. Even volleyball is quietly raising its status within the department. A healthy hoops program lifts all athletic teams. Third, like it or not, a basketball tournament team provides more visibility to a university than any other sport besides football – including our niche sports of hockey, lacrosse, and gymnastics. Basketball is not going away and DU must improve the product to at least break even to take the pressure off of other areas.

By the Numbers

How did DU do this season against the metrics we set for them at the beginning of the season based on only one senior, Ade Murkey, on the squad? We predicted 7-9 wins and the Pioneers ended up 7-24, 3-13 Summit League. They finished in 8th place and lost against the #1 seed in the Summit League Tournament, North Dakota State University, 71-69, right about where we expected them to finish.

Ade Murkey
Denver loses senior Ade Murkey heading into next season.

Stripping out the emotion, these are the Key Performance Indicators we established at the beginning of the season to compare DU’s  progress this year against the disastrous 2018-2019 campaign:

Table 1: Preseason Metrics – Performance vs. Other D1 Programs

Performance Indicators (KPIs) D1 Teams 2018-2019 2019-2020
Turnover Margin 351 320 260
Scoring Margin 351 326 322
Field Goal % Defense 351 328 265
Three-Point Field Goal Defense 351 351 122
Assists-to-turnovers 351 305 309

Progress was made in four out of five categories but Denver generally performed more poorly compared to the D1 program average.

More difficult to actually measure is the actual growth and progress made by individuals as the season progressed. Clearly, Denver improved on a number of the KPI’s and their effort and attitude on the floor definitely improved – but is that enough?

Equally concerning, the team is set to lose their top player in senior Ade Murkey and his 18.6 ppg. and 6.3 rebounds per game. Denver has one incoming recruit, Sam Hines, Jr. (6’5″, 180 lbs.),  who is said to have a game similar to Ade Murkey. If that is the case, he is likely very athletic but needs time (i.e multiple seasons) at the D1 level to align his hoop skills with his physical talent. So, do not expect Hines to replace Murkey’s stats next season. It will be largely up to the existing squad to not only pick up the pieces of Murkey’s exit but actually improve next season. There are no miraculous solutions around the corner to fix Denver Basketball.

And, could Denver have some unexpected undergraduate exits? If so, the coaching staff needs to be ready to pounce on prospect(s) to fill some holes and provide immediate D1 level production.

Sophomore Class Disappoints

Overall, the five-man sophomore class was a disappointment. If DU was to surprise this campaign, this group had to step-up. Jase Townsend was clearly the most improved player of the bunch with 16.9 ppg and 3.3 rebounds but a whopping 73 turnovers is far too many and must be corrected. Point guard Taelyr Gatlin played the second-most minutes of the group but 4.6 points per game from the point is not enough to open up passing lanes or open up shots for Townsend. Alperen Kurnaz seems to have achieved his ceiling and appears to be a role player in terms of his overall contribution on the floor. The biggest disappointments so far have been Joe Lanzi and David Nzekwesi.  Lanzi’s role declined precipitously as the season progressed and big-man David Nzekwesi regressed during the season, leaving freshman Robert Jones as Denver’s sole low post presence. If David Nzekwesi would have stepped up this season, ala Daniel Amigo, and added a third reliable defender and scorer, there is no telling how much better the Pioneers would have been.

Table 2: Sophomore class progress  – 2018-2019 season vs. 2019-2020

GP 19/20 GP +/- MIN 19/20 MIN +/- PPG 19/20 PPG +/- REB 19/20 REB +/- TO 19/20 TO +/-
Townsend 26/31 5 493/998 505 6.3/16.9 10.6 2.0/5.3 3.3 20/73 53
Gatlin 28/31 3 464/840 376 3.1/4.6 1.5 1.2/2.7 0.5 35/42 7
Lanzi 20/19 -1 242/311 69 2.3/4.1 1.8 1.1/2.1 1 22/28 6
Kurnaz 27/31 4 296/515 219 2.5/3.4 0.9 2.6/2.8 0.2 8/20 12
Nzekwesi 25/27 2 339/449 110 8.1/5.7 -2.4 3.1/3.3 0.2 18/20 2
2019-2020 Totals 13 1279 30.1 12.4 16.2 5.2 80

It would appear that Jase Townsend is the only high-impact player from the sophomore class. If he can get his turnovers down, he is an important part of the future puzzle that is DU basketball. However, there are other question marks hanging over this group. What is the future with Nzekwesi and Lanzi and will Townsend be ‘poached’ by a larger program? Finally, Gatlin was injured much of this season but can he improve his scoring touch and improve on a paltry 38 assists (1.3 assists per game)? Roscoe Eastmond showed some flashes at the point but his small stature makes him a serious defensive liability, especially as a starter.  DU’s backcourt is not strong enough or deep enough as currently constituted to compete for a championship in the Summit League.

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Jase Townsend has been named one of DU’s 2020-2021 team captains

And the big question remains, is this a recruiting problem or a player development issue? Either way, it falls on the coaches – and the players to work to a solution.

Freshman Robert Jones

6’10” freshman Robert Jones may be Denver’s biggest recruiting prize in years with his size and willingness to work hard. He could be Denver’s Mike Daum – Daum was South Dakota State’s big-man that dominated the Summit League for four years. Jones’ 9.0 points per game and 4.7 rebounds merely scratched the surface for a player with a crazy high ceiling. And his work ethic is said to be his best trait – so expect season-on-season improvement. But SDSU back-stopped Daum with playmakers in the back-court and front-court.

Jones’ back-up, Tristan Green, has been wildly inconsistent but has shown some flashes, especially on the offensive end. Can the JuCo transfer minimize the lows and build on the highs? No one knows at this point but that would certainly help with the uncertainty around David Nzekwesi.

Image result for robert jones denver basketball
Freshman Robert Jones may be one of Denver’s best pivot recruits ever.

No individual on the rest of the bench scores more than 4.6 points per game or pulls in more than one rebound per game. So, it is fair to conclude that no player on the bench today appears ready to score double-digits or snare 5-8 rebounds per game. And, that may be this squad’s biggest Achilles heel – a lack of reliable depth waiting in the wings to step-up. Jones and Townsend will provide a solid 1-2 punch but Denver needs more. And, Denver’s late-season improvement came when they featured Ade Murkey and shortened their bench.

Changing Landscape 

On a podcast this week, Kentucky head coach John Calipari bemoaned the new transfer rules that will likely strip mid-majors of their best players as Power Conferences pluck the proven mid-major players to stock their rosters. It is still too early to see if this will impact Denver’s roster next season but it is abundantly clear that any hopes of a 2020-2021 rebound will rest on the retention of Townsend and Jones.

Next Season

What does Denver basketball need to do to become relevant and truly competitive for the Summit League crown next season? Is it even possible or realistic?

We think so. Break out your needle and thread.

We’ll cover that in part 2.

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