DU Men’s Basketball Head Coach Jeff Wulbrun set a lofty goal for his program – which is 4-9 through its first 13 games – this season. His publicly stated goal was to put the ‘most improved team in basketball’ on the court this season. How are they doing at the midway point?
While some fans may have predicted a rapid turnaround, we had more modest expectations. Our season preview predicted three wins in non-conference play and four wins in conference play. So far, Denver sits at 4-9 in non-conference action so they are slightly ahead of schedule by our estimation.
This season, Denver can put six reliable players on the floor. KJ Hunt has emerged as the floor leader and scoring leader. He provides excellent energy and scoring (16.4 ppg) but his team-leading 44 turnovers must come down in conference play. Mikey Henn has been solid upfront with 10.4 points per game. But in his 26.8 minutes per game, he should be able to improve on his 3.9 rebounds per game mark. Henn must improve his shot selection (44.8% FG shooting is too low for a big man) and focus on rebounding, picks and assists. Jordan Johnson, a community college transfer, has been a big surprise – in a good way. He is a reliable ball handler and scores 9.8 points per game. He has 33 assists in thirteen games and, considering the ball is in his hands during most offensive possessions, we would like to see 3+ assists per game in the second half of the season. Two true freshmen, Coban Porter and Tevin Smith have been early season contributors as well. In our view, Porter has outplayed the highly touted Tevin Smith but both appear to be Division I-worthy building blocks. Porter is scoring 8.6 ppg and Smith is scoring 8.0 ppg but he needs to cut down on his 32 turnovers in the second half of the season. Finally, freshman forward Touko Tainamo has been improving game-by-game with 4.8 ppg and 3.5 rebounds. He is a big body forward and has shown flashes, especially in recent games.
The future is BRIGHT 🌞
Come check it out next week
— Denver Men's Basketball (@DU_MensHoops) December 17, 2021
Looking at the overall scoring margin, Denver has reduced last season’s dreadful scoring-margin-per-game from -9.3 to -4.0. Field goal shooting is up slightly (.447 vs. .443) but free-throw shooting has been poor by this season’s team. Last season’s squad shot .721 from the line but this year’s team is .656 from the charity stripe – not good enough for a team with little margin for error. The bottom line is good, well-coached teams make free throws.
Denver is being out-rebounded with their three-guard line-up by -3.8 boards vs their competitors. This is yet another area for improvement when conference play begins tonight. Denver is dishing out 12.4 assists per game and needs to increase that figure with a three-guard lineup to 13.5+ in the second half of the season. While they have improved on turnovers versus the prior season (14.3 vs 14.8) this is yet another area for improvement to reduce miscues by 3 to 4 per fewer turnovers per game when each possession is at a premium.
The most disappointing statistic of all is the attendance of 864 at home and 2,380 on the road during conference play. Based on observation, even that figure may be inflated. Yes, DU plays in a high school gym. Yes, this is another COVID year. Yes, the product has been historically poor. However, the turnout for basketball is downright embarrassing. Maybe when students are back, the environment will improve but the gameday experience is, frankly, poor. This could be a chicken-or-egg issue where hoops fans want to see improvement before they invest their time and money in an inferior product. (BTW, attendance has also been poor for volleyball with 295 fans per game with a program with a winning tradition.)
We are sticking with our forecast of four Summit League conference game wins during the regular season. However, we believe that in a relatively short amount of time Wulbrun and his staff have added some building blocks and much-needed stability to the DU men’s basketball program. For that alone, we are witnessing tangible progress. As for DU men’s basketball being the ‘most improved team’ in the nation, we give the program an incomplete at the midway mark.
Denver takes to the court against Western Illinois tonight at 7:00 pm MT at Hamilton Gym to open Summit League conference play.
Photo courtesy of Denver Athletics