Denver Men’s Basketball Skids to Worst Record in Modern Era – What’s Next?

The University of Denver announced its intention to move all of its athletics programs to Division I in 1999. Since that time, Denver men’s basketball has posted five single-digit win seasons and has spiraled to a new low this season. While DU has flirted with some decent seasons in the recent past, men’s basketball’s decline on the Denver campus is glaring, especially compared to other athletic programs at University & Evans.

Before the last five years, Denver had two single-digit winning seasons in the modern DI era. Six-year hoops head coach Terry Carroll went 8-20 in the 2001-2002 season before going 4-25 during 2006-2007 – a season where Carroll went missing from the DU bench on December 20th and never returned. Joe Scott’s won-loss record never fell to single digits with his worst record 12-18 in the 2014-2015 season. While Scott’s inability to get to the NCAA tournament was cited as the reason for his exit (as well as perhaps his on-court histrionics), his results were in decline as well. Carroll had one 20 win season in six seasons and Scott enjoyed two 20-win seasons during his nine seasons.

Pioneers are all-too-frequent fliers
The Terry Carroll era ended with the bench boss absent.

Billups passed Carroll’s single-digit win totals in only five seasons, capped by this past weekend’s loss to Omaha. In the last three seasons, the Pioneers went 8-22, 7-24, and splashed down this year with a 2-19 record in a COVID-shortened season.

Why does DU play, historically awful basketball and can it be fixed?

A Summit League coach survey in 2019 reported by college basketball insider Jeff Goodman showed DU basketball to be the second-best job in the Summit League. Yet, despite outward positives, the program is mired in mediocrity.

Goodman’s article cites the following: “Where DU wins: “Location and financial support. They also don’t have to play any buy games, which helps.” – Summit head coach

Where DU loses:
“They don’t really care about basketball there. The arena always seems empty. It’s a hockey school, and academics also make it difficult.” – Summit assistant coach

No doubt, DU will never be Duke, Kansas, or North Carolina. But can the Pioneers compete at a ‘mid-major conference’ level and rise up every 3-4 years with a legitimate chance at a conference title?

Basketball is viewed as a profit center or breakeven proposition at most schools. Conferences see the most value (outside of football) in basketball programs. If DU ever wished to upgrade conference affiliation, a solid basketball program that draws fans and provides dollars and visibility is a requirement. For a variety of current and historic reasons, DU basketball is viewed unfavorably (or not viewed at all) by students and fans alike. It could be culture, it could be a losing history, poor recruiting geography, or it could be the appeal of other sports and attractions in the area that leaves Denver men’s basketball struggling for success.

Analysis: Gonzaga does it all in 101-40 rout over Denver | The Spokesman-Review
A 101-40 loss to Gonzaga on December 21st, 2018 highlighted the gap between a mid-major powerhouse and Denver.

Another issue is the program’s operating cost. With most of Denver’s other athletic programs competing for titles, pandemic notwithstanding, does DU want to make a financial commitment to basketball which might detract from other programs? While every conference requires members to field a basketball team, basketball programs can become huge money-pits. Especially considering the cost to hire and retain a top, proven coach and assistants. Nursing the program along with a minimum of support is one legitimate option worth considering if you abide by the rule that ‘you can’t be great at everything.’ Plus, the salary for a proven basketball coach may throw off the DU coaches’ room salaries when others have demonstrated long-term success in their respective disciplines. Funding a historically shaky basketball program could actually end up limiting other sports competitiveness such as lacrosse, gymnastics, and hockey.

Utah State head coach Craig Smith yells toward the court against Saint Mary's during the second half of a NCAA college basketball game Monday, Nov. 19, 2018, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
Craig Smith is a winning coach who moved from South Dakota State to Utah State. Smith’s latest deal, signed in December, is for six years and $5.025 million, running from April 1, 2020 to March 31, 2026, per documents obtained via public records request by The Salt Lake Tribune. This reflects the current cost of a D1 coach with a winning track record.

Diversity is an emerging consideration for making a further investment in hoops. Basketball, men’s and women’s, is one of the few sports sponsored by DU that is played by a majority of minority student-athletes. DU’s ability to appeal to this demographic and a changing national demographic is both a challenge and an opportunity for a university that is seeking to become more diverse. Can investment in a successful basketball program create a more welcoming environment for students of color both on and off the court?

Denver basketball is at a crossroads.

Decisions made over the next several months will show if athletic administrators are ready to aggressively resuscitate the flailing program or let it continue to flounder. Is DU going to be bold and aggressive or take the more stately, conservative approach to support basketball going forward? Frankly, both decisions are likely being explored and both can be justified and reasonable – despite how fans may feel about it.  This is especially true with the declining overall interest by the DU community in basketball over the past 20+ seasons and when the status quo may actually be preferable to a more costly alternative. Either way, flashy or conservative, a turnaround is certain to take years and lots of money with little guarantee of success.

Sit back and watch over the next several months and your eyes will tell you all you need to know.

Top photo: Associated Press/Young Kwak

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