We get it, Reflecting on the 2019-2020 Campaign and the Future, Part 1 did seem like doom and gloom. But we have the six reasons/actions why DU can be in the hunt for a Summit League title as early as next season. So, here is how DU threads the needle next year:
Keep the Coaches
We’ve heard from many of you – and you’re wrong. We want the coaching staff, assistants Bicari Alexander and Raman Sposato, to stay in place for next season, led by Rodney Billups. And it is not just because Billups is a good guy and a DU alum. Our argument is for a very machiavellian reason – there are no safety nets next season and the coaching staff and players know it. Billups has his recruits, his coaches and his system in place heading into year five. He recruited every one of the current players and there is a special bond between coaches and their scholarship players. To think that these coaches and players are not going to be giving their absolute best next season with everything on the line (i.e. careers), you are sadly mistaken. There is an old quote, “the hardest steel goes through the hottest fire.” After two poor seasons, we are going to see Billups and company face the heat. We will get their very best stuff. And, the answer will be self-evident at the end of the season.
The Summit League is Winnable
Never has the gulf been wider between Power Five basketball conferences and mid-majors. But, never has the gulf within mid-majors been so narrow. Take the Summit League Tournament in Sioux Falls. #8 seed DU should have defeated #1 seed North Dakota State University in the first round of the Summit League Tournament. A milquetoast #6 North Dakota squad made it to the Summit league finals. Why? Because the Summit League is loaded with similar 2-star players who are good but not great. Gone are 4-year Summit League stars like Mike Daum, Matt Mooney and Jon Konchar who have legitimate high-level professional aspirations. And with the new transfer rules, players with elite skills will never make it 4 years in a mid-major conference. What will win in the future is teamwork (a system), player development, high-effort defense, ball security, offensive efficiency and role players, led by gym rats and meat-and-potato bigs. Not sexy but the future way to build a squad capable of winning the Summit League. If DU can just make incremental improvements in key areas they can compete with anybody in the Summit League. This is the 22nd strongest conference in the land. DU is not playing the Big 10, the ACC or the Big 12 foes. Summit contests generally pit 2-stars vs. 2-stars and the tiniest things make a difference.
Summer School Not Optional
This is simple. The team stays on campus this summer and works together to improve. The 9th and 8th place finishes respectively should set off the alarm bells for everyone associated with the men’s basketball program. And, if David Nzeqwesi stays and decides to get in shape like Daniel Amigo did, Denver will have that critical ‘third contributor’ who will provide consistent minutes, points and rebounds. And Billups is the one who led that amazing transformation before – giving Amigo a second chance and a professional career. Also, considering the current situation, any players unwilling to sacrifice their summer to emerge from the Summit League depths are not the type of players capable of engineering a one-year turnaround.
From an on-court perspective, this team needs to learn how to better value each possession. Competing against similar rosters of 2-star players, the difference between winning and losing boils down to taking care of the ball. Shot selection killed Denver early in the season. Turnovers (13.8 pg.) hurt Denver all season long. Offensive rebounding (7.13 pg./336 out of 351) was poor. By clarifying roles and specifically assigning players to fill these gaps, Denver can gain additional 5-10 possessions a game. That is the difference between winning and losing.
For example, DU coaches could work with big-bodied forward Alperen Kurnaz on rebounding as his primary role – not scoring or ball-handling. He can still be a starter but his role more specifically defined to focus on defensive and offensive rebounding. Many Summit programs have employed big-bodied farm kids just like Kurnaz to hammer Denver in the low block. Time to return the favor.
The same for 6’10” Tristan Green. Give him very specific offensive and defensive duties that play to his strengths and eliminate those things he can’t do well. Then, expand his responsibilities as he grows more comfortable.
Develop or Recruit a Reliable Penetrating 1-Guard and a Consistent Third Scorer
This is the toughest challenge for the coaching staff – replace Ade Murkey’s production. Denver must have a third player step-up and consistently fill that hole along with Robert Jones and Jase Townsend.
Maybe it is Javonni Bickham with a year under his belt rehabbing his knees or Owen McGlashan. Maybe Joseph Lanzi recommits or newcomer Sam Hines, Jr. has a breakout freshman year but that is a high expectation with little or no hard evidence to back it up. Maybe DU can get a Power-5 bench transfer if a roster spot opens up. Either way, Denver cannot compete for a top Summit League seed with only two consistent double-digit scorers.
DU also needs a point guard who can threaten from the outside, penetrate and score, penetrate and dish or penetrate and kick-out to Townsend. When you combine Taelyr Gatlin and Roscoe Eastmond you get close to this package but neither player has shown the ability to score consistently while generating assists. If there is another opening on the roster, point guard remains a primary need for this squad. But, as it stands, Gatlin must make a big jump next season on his scoring (4.6 ppg.) and assists (1.3 pg.).
Keep the Bench Short
Denver’s results this past season improved dramatically when Billups shortened his bench. Denver must develop a consistent starting five with 2-3 reliable role players off the bench. Early in his career, Billups tried to play deep into the bench with a “strength of the team is the team” mantra. DU does not have the depth to play deep. The coaching staff must quickly identify their core assets this upcoming season and stick with them.
So, there you have it. The future of DU hoops is not nearly as bleak as many think- the climb to respectability is not that far. The volatile life of being a bottom dweller as a mid-major in a middling conference is, indeed, frustrating. But these six points show a single-season turnaround is possible for DU.
And, while we remain skeptical, we are hopeful Denver makes the climb next season. We’ve waited a long time.