We did an interview with DU basketball Head Coach Jeff Wulbrun as he prepares his team for the Summit League Tournament in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
LetsGoDU: We know you are focused on Summit League Tournament but several brief questions about the regular season. Double-digit wins, seven conference wins, four road trip wins and a Summit League tournament bid. You wanted to be in the conversation as one of the most improved basketball teams in the country. You clearly have the most improved team in the Summit League. Your thoughts about the team’s progress to date?
Wulbrun: I am proud of what we have accomplished. The team continues to show progress this season and especially, resiliency. Character and integrity – those are two things that we do not compromise on within the team. It is so important to what we want to accomplish here. Look, we’ve absorbed a lot of gut punches during this season. You learn life lessons in basketball and, ultimately, it is how you handle adversity. We have had our share of close losses and how you respond to those gut punches is the true measure of a team. After some of our toughest losses, we give them (players) some days off and then, get back to work and learn from it. Let’s play our best basketball down the stretch – and we did! All we ask of the players is to give their brothers everything they have and be the hardest playing team. After a tough road loss to Omaha at the end of the season, we responded with perhaps our best two performances on the road against St Thomas and Western Illinois. The chemistry and the camaraderie of this group are so admirable – they come to practice with their lunch boxes and hard hats prepared to play their roles. Adversity has not derailed us. Instead, this is a resilient group that works hard and gets better. Pretty damn impressive in my view.
LetsGoDU: DU won several close games this season but there were also 4-5 losses that could have gone in your team’s favor. As a head coach, especially trying to build a winning culture, do you think more about the wins or the games that might have gone DU’s way?
Wulbrun: Hard to do a ‘what if’…we lost a heartbreaker to Omaha that we thought we had won and we defeat St Thomas on a winning shot in the last second. You just have to learn for those moments. The first St Thomas game at Hamilton was a big win for us. We played without KJ Hunt and came back from 19 down to win – that was a confidence builder. It’s hard with a new team like we have (9 new players and 4 returning players) to have confidence if you have never experienced it before at this level. This was a game where we finished it off. Every experience has gone that way – good and bad. There is a reason why I came to DU – to build something special. I want to build a basketball program that does things that have not been done before. I am a builder. We gave the same challenge to our recruits and they bought into that vision and challenge. Already, we are doing some things that have not been done in quite some time around here. We have taken a nice step this season. We’ve moved the needle. We’ve scratched the surface.
LetsGoDU: You have the most productive freshman trio in DU DI basketball history. Coban Porter, Tevon Smith and Touko Tainamo are averaging a cumulative 29.4 points per game and 11.5 rebounds. Are you surprised by their productivity this season?
Wulbrun: I am really pleased both on the court and off the court for these student-athletes. Their maturity and ability to handle the emotions of DI basketball. It really is a credit to them and their hard work. It’s one thing to give them an opportunity but what they make of it is up to them. I have never promised a recruit playing time. Hard work and resiliency are what is needed to endure a long season. You see what they are doing on the floor. And, don’t forget Jordan Johnson, too. After COVID-19, Jordan Johnson has been a positive force off the bench with 18 points at St Thomas and 5 points and 6 assists at Western Illinois. It’s because of their level of maturity and willingness to play a key role for us. Another example is Coban Porter. Coban’s shooting really shows progress -it showed against North Dakota where he missed his first seven shots yet, he came out and got us into overtime. Two months before that, he would have been frustrated with a challenging first half – that’s the progress I am looking for – a level of maturity and a strong desire to accomplish great things. Really satisfying to see all that growth in our team and in our players.
LetsGoDU: On to the #2 North Dakota State Bison. NDSU plays an ‘inside out game’ with big guards in Tyree Eady and Sam Greisel and 6’10” Rocky Kreuser inside. They can drive to the hoop, drive and dish, or drive and pop the ball out to the perimeter. What have we learned from playing them twice? How do you slow them down?
Wulbrun: NDSU (21-9, 13-5) is really talented. South Dakota has had a dream season in the Summit League but the Bison are loaded, too. Big guards are a problem for us. They get you in so many ways – their forwards Grant Nelson and Rocky Kreuser are very skilled. Kreuser and Nelson are good with their back to the basket and hard to guard. Their high level of talent and depth make them a force in the Summit League. Their versatility is really something. They can score from three, they can score facing the basket or they can drive by you for points. Also, big guards Boden Skunberg, and Jarius Cook and forward Andrew Morgan can all give us problems. They pose problems with their depth. I love how we competed with them at their place. We competed hard. We held Greisel down to 4 points. We changed up our defenses with doubles and zone and kept them off balance. We were close until the final minutes when they made the plays they needed to make. I like what we did and how hard we competed. If we are the hardest working team on the floor, that gives us a fighting chance.
LetsGoDU: You have two veteran leaders who have stood out this season in KJ Hunt and Michael Henn. Sioux Falls will be a hostile environment. Do you expect them to play a bigger role in Sioux Falls when the team is certain to face adversity?
Wulbrun: Our older, more experienced players have done a great job this year. They embrace leading and mentoring our younger players. Our freshmen are no longer freshmen. If it’s a hostile environment in Sioux Falls, it will bring out the best in our players. They relish the opportunity, as all competitors do, to compete in the toughest environments and prevail. That’s the best part of winning on the road – beating another team and the crowd. True competitors relish those opportunities. Playing in a packed venue like the Summit League Tournament will be fun for our team to experience the great energy and an excellent college basketball atmosphere. We’ve had some good road performance, especially finishing with two road wins to end the season.
LetsGoDU: Taelyr Gatlin has been the teams ‘energy giver’ off the bench this season and his 3-point shot has been critical in several spots. What can you say about this senior’s play this season? Could he be a defensive wildcard against NDSU?
Wulbrun: His defense presence is evident every game and we pit him against the best player on the other team. He did a great job on (NDSU’s) Sam Greisel. He embraced the coaching change and positively accepted his role – even though it may not have been what he wanted. His attitude never wavered. He set a great example for our players, even when he was injured (shoulder). He is the heart of this team and represents all the things I value as a coach. I can’t say enough positive things about him. He never complained about his role but he just kept working and gave his best every single day. He is a pivotal contributor for us.
LetsGoDU: What are two or three things fans can look for in your game against NDSU that will need to happen for Denver to compete against an excellent NDSU team.
Wulbrun: Offensively, look for good ball movement and player movement. We must attack the paint. I thought we did a good job of that last week with good decisions. Defensively, look for good positioning and rebounding – we stress that every day. Limit second shot opportunities. Against NDSU, we need to have a strong defensive transition – one on one defending. Finally, we must be sound in the areas of physicality, effort, toughness and resistance – all intangibles. These will be our keys going forward as a program, too. Be the most physical and tough team on the floor.
LetsGoDU: Thanks Coach and good luck in Sioux Falls.
#7 Denver faces #2 North Dakota State Saturday at 7:30 pm MT.