For Denver Men’s Hoops, Hope Springs Eternal but Skepticism Still Remains

A new look Denver men’s basketball team takes to the floor tonight against Division II Regis University.

DU’s biggest battle this season revolves around credibility. Will the Pioneers be able to reverse a seasons-long basketball malaise where men’s basketball has become largely irrelevant on campus? In comes a new cast of characters, including head coach Jeff Wulbrun and his right-hand-lieutenant Brandon Dunston, with promises to transform the broken program into the ‘most improved in the nation‘.

Fans, rightly so, are likely to cross their arms and say ‘prove it.’ But, from all accounts inside the program, Wulbrun and Dunston are attacking the sagging DU culture and attempting to break the cycle of losing. A difficult challenge considering a late start to recruiting with Wulbrun not coming on board until March 29th, a mass exodus of players, and a fanbase who has heard it all before. Oh, and let’s not forget, DU has no proven Division I double-digit scorers on the floor.

The Pioneers return to Hamilton Gym yet again this season, a sign seen by some fans that DU has surrendered high-level aspirations by moving into a practice gym from the grander Magness Arena. Others argue that it doesn’t matter if they played in Denver’s old Gates Gym (DU’s old NAIA/D2 gym) as long as they start piling up W’s. Longer-term, though, it’s abundantly clear that DU needs a serious venue upgrade to attract fans and talent.

DU is coming off a brutal 2-19 season and the departure of 7 of their top 10 players in terms of minutes played and they’ve lost a staggering 61.9 points per game from last year due to transfers and graduation. The Pioneers come into the 2021 season with just 15.0 points per game returning from their top 10 players along with five freshmen and four experienced transfers. Historically, that’s not exactly a formula for instant success.

Head coach Jeff Wulbrun might be just the person to steady the ship, though. With decades of coaching as an assistant with five different programs, he finally has his own program. He seems to embrace the challenge and understands how to sell student-athletes on a private university experience. By all accounts, his assistants, associate head coach Brando Dunston and assistant coach Rob Zewe, are young and hungry and known as relentless recruiters. Wulbrun will be the steady hand for a shakey program and his assistants will provide the spark and talent. It may take more time than most DU hoops fans want but the talent on the floor should steadily improve over the next several years. You can listen to a podcast featuring Jeff Wulbrun (A New Year Begins) on Reaching the Summit.

Denver looks pretty solid at the guard spot, especially on the defensive end. The big question is scoring, especially with the transfer of back-court gunner Jase Townsend to San Diego.

It looks like transfer guard K.J. Hunt will play the role of inspirational court leader. Expect the ball to be in his hands during critical moments of games and for him to provide much-needed on-court stability.

Tevin Smith, a 6’4″ guard out of Danville, Illinois is one of the highest-rated recruits to attend DU but, as with all freshmen, his first year results are likely to be choppy. Smith should be a four-year foundational building block for the program. Look for Smith to start and get big minutes.

Junior guard 6’4″ Payton Moore was coming off the bench for Rice last season. He provided steady results with 48% shooting from the field and his size and basketball IQ will be an important addition to backcourt depth.

Guard Taelyr Gatlin a returning part-time starter, will bring a level of continuity and stability to the new look Pioneers. Gatlin won’t make big mistakes on the court but he is unlikely to take a game over either. Freshman Coban Porter, Denver Nugget Michael Porter Jr.’s little brother, is a wild card who will need time and patience to develop. Don’t expect too much this season from Porter but he could provide long-term benefits to the program.

JuCo transfer guard, 6’1″ Jordan Johnson lit up the scoreboard at Hinds Community College last season but even in the Summit League, DU will be a step-up in competition for him. Expect Johnson to be coming off the bench and adding energy and spot scoring in limited minutes this season.

Unknown and unproven describes the Pioneer front line.

6’9″ Tristan Green returns for the Pios but has at times been a defensive liability and streaky shooter. Journeyman Mikey Henn, a transfer from Portland, will provide muscle, rebounding, and fight inside. Henn will add power and toughness to the low block where Denver was very weak last season.

6’8″ junior Javonni Bickham (3.8/1.9) is the other contributing returning front-court player. Bickham was highly-touted but has not yet lived up to expectations following major knee injuries. Maybe a new staff can utilize his talent more effectively but, based on prior results, Bickham is likely working in off the bench as a depth piece, at least to start the season.

Then, there is DU’s ‘EU frontline’ of Touko Tainamo (Finland), Pedro Lopez -Sanvicentie (Spain), and Felipe Motta (Italy). It is hard to predict how or what of these players will contribute on the court but each provides a wealth of international experience. If DU is going to shock the basketball world (i.e. win games, most improved DI basketball program, etc.) two of the three basketball imports must step up.

Korey Hess and Drake Muller at guard and James Sanders at forward return for DU and are likely to see limited action.

Overall, it is unclear how the frontline of Denver will play and how all this will fit together under a new staff over the short term. Players and coaches have openly expressed a desire to perform at a higher level but so do a host of other more established squads. At a minimum, this group will be a work in progress during the season.

The Summit League coaches picked DU 9th. Only Division I newcomer St. Thomas was selected to finish lower. CBS sports ranked Denver 338 out of 358 teams, again only ahead of St. Thomas in the Summit League. Clearly, South Dakota State, 2021 Sweet Sixteen Cinderella Oral Roberts, and North Dakota State are the class of the conference. UMKC, South Dakota, and Western Illinois are going to make some noise. The rest of the teams (Omaha, North Dakota, St Thomas, Denver) will likely battle for the bottom third. Program insiders believe Denver could finish as high as fifth but that may be a bit optimistic given all the changes on and off the court.

How will the Pioneers finish? It’s hard to predict but expect around seven wins, four in conference play, and an 8th/9th place conference finish. Even with such a poor record, DU could begin to build some credibility. Cut down on turnovers, toughen up on defense and display a more disciplined offense are reasonable expectations. It will take patience to improve the on-court product and it will take time (and a winning record) before students see basketball as a ‘must attend’ event on campus. The disaster that DU hoops has been the last four years will take time to overcome.

This season’s overall record is not nearly as important as gaining credibility for the program by not playing sloppy, disorganized basketball. If this crew ends up with a .500 or better record, no matter how unlikely that is, they would have to be considered one of the most improved teams in the land. Unfortunately, it will probably take at least another season to get there.

The mystery that is Denver men’s basketball will be revealed tonight.

5 thoughts on “For Denver Men’s Hoops, Hope Springs Eternal but Skepticism Still Remains”

  1. Excellent pep me up. Dunker expects an exciting season. My Piovision is ready. At this point, I don’t even know what style of ball we will play. Run and gun is unlikely with a Stanford man at the helm. Athleticism should not be a problem at the 1,2,and 3 positions. We can play big or small. We have an abundance of European height. If one or two turn into good college players, we could see a big upturn. I’m predicting 11 wins.

  2. While the DU backcourt has usually had a few solid players, even in DU’s terrible recent seasons (Rosga, Murkey, and Townsend come to mind), the Pioneer front court has been uniformly awful and loaded with stiffs posing as D-I players.

    I don’t know how the new ‘Euro’ frontline will be under Wulbrun, but it can’t be any worse than the late Billups era, can it?

    Last year’s team had 1 D-I victory. One. Singular. Division One Victory.

    Anything over that this year is progress as far as I am concerned…I think 11 victories seems like a big stretch after a 2-19 season. I think 6-8 wins would be a large improvement, and anything over eight wins would be way beyond my expectations.

  3. Lost last night to Ottawa AZ at home. Somehow still hitting new lows, and at this point likely continues to reflect the Billups era. The point was made to ride Billups’ contract through til the end despite the horrendous results by year 3 because he was an alumn. Well you’re looking at the fallout of that. It appears DU will not become competitive in men’s basketball at the summit league level for a LONG time. Lasting damage has been done and it’s very frustrating.

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