Denver Men’s Basketball Season Preview: Breaking Convention

This is not your typical DU men’s basketball team. Historically, Denver has fielded under-sized teams that had to play smart and earn breaks to compete against bigger, more athletic teams. This year’s team, led by second-year head coach Jeff Wulbrun, is an intriguing mix of talented underclassmen, experienced transfers, and five international players who have come together to give Denver fans their biggest and most athletic team in history.  All that, despite losing one of their most talented players, Coban Porter, to a season-ending ACL injury.

Most preseason polls have the Pioneers in the top half of the Summit League as they begin their ascent under Wulbrun. For the first time in years, Denver should be able to compete with every team in the Summit League. ESPN named DU as the surprise team of the Summit League and Major Madness named DU as having one of the Top 10 mid-major recruiting classes in the country.

The team is deep at nearly every level which gives Wulbrun and his staff (assistants Rob Zewe, Rob Williams, and Jerry Brown) the chance to alter lineups based on matchups as well as keep the squad fresh for what is likely to be another breakthrough season for DU men’s basketball.  Wulbrun led a valuable team-building trip to play in France and launched a healthy training table over the summer to support nutrition and strength training for his team, supported by a donor base that he has woken up from a long slumber after a long stretch of poor seasons.

Wulbrun is focused on making progress on last season’s 11-win season, cementing a new culture, and laying a solid, sustainable foundation without compromise.  He has settled in quite nicely at the helm – bringing in a group of talented athletes who prioritize academics as well – averaging a 3.5 GPA over the past two quarters. “High character, high integrity young men who chase excellence in all they do” backed by ‘integrity’ is the Wulbrun mantra.   The result, according to Wulbrun, is a group that will, “compete hard – night in and night out.”

Denver has a collection of eight new players with competition at all levels, making this season an exciting one for Denver fans and a problem for Denver’s opponents. This group has size and talent and should keep the Pioneers in games with improved defense and a team capable of rebounding in waves. It will take a solid chunk of the non-conference schedule to see how all the pieces fit together under game pressure but the puzzle should be largely figured out by conference play.

Denver’s team strength is a deep front line with length. Returning big man 6’9″ Touko Tainamo is a threat with his agility and efficient shooting, inside and out, and will clean up on the offensive boards.  When DU decides to ‘go big,’ they have Stanford transfer center, 6’10” 260 pounds Lukas Kusinas. He brings a physical presence under the basket that DU has not had since Daniel Amigo. Denver can play the match-up game with both players and stay fresh during a grueling season – a rarity for past Denver squads.

The new quarterback for Denver in the backcourt is Tommy Bruner,  a 1000-point scorer who led his past team, USC Upstate. Bruner is a solid shooter and ball screen player and will need to fill the hole left by the departure of KJ Hunt. He set the freshman scoring record at USC Upstate, breaking former Denver Nugget and NBA Champion Torrey Craig’s record. DU super-sophomore guard Tevin Smith has been named to the preseason All-Summit League second team.  A 6’4″ sharpshooter and solid decision-maker, Smith will be a key cog for DU as he, too, will need to fill the leadership void left by KJ Hunt. He is just one of five freshmen in the country to average at least 10.0 points, 3.0 rebounds, and 1.0 blocks per game last season – three of the others were Chet Holmgren, Jabari Smith, and Jalen Duren who were picks #2, #3, and #13 in the NBA Draft this past year. Junior transfer 6’7″ Marko Lukic from Serbia led Arkansas-Little Rock in scoring last season and will be an interesting player to watch on the wing as a solid match-up against big teams.

Tyree Corbett, a versatile 6’7 forward from Coppin State has a 7-foot wing span, can sweep the offensive boards, and play well above the rim on offense and defense. His carefree, loose personality will come in handy when the pressure turns up in Summit League conference play. In preseason practice and scrimmages, the biggest surprise may be 6’8″ forward Pedro Lopez Sanvincente who is proving to be the best pure front-court 3-point shooter and one of the best passers on the team after an injury-shortened freshman campaign. Veteran 6’6″ senior forward Javonni Bickham brings experience and knowledge to the floor and has delivered consistently in spot duty in the past.

Denver also added three long freshmen guards. Colorado red-shirt prep guard 6’5″ Ben Bowen (Wyoming transfer) and  Illinois prep 6’6″ Justin Mullins will add even more size and talent to the perimeter.  Mullins may be DU’s biggest recruiting  ‘get’ in years. One example of his skills was in full display last November when he led Oak Park River Forest High School with 38 points and nine rebounds in a win against the Thornwood Thunderbirds. In another game against Warren High in December he was a one-man wrecking crew registering game-high totals of 31 points, 8 rebounds, and 5 assists; he added a pair of steals and blocks for good measure. Or, the 36 points he put up against Proviso West in February…you get the story. He was named to several Illinois All-State teams and has the athleticism to guard all four positions and play both ends of the court.

Dan Makuna from Germany is another guard (6’8″) and potential diamond in the rough who adds length to a team that could not match up with a number of big Summit League guards last season. Several of DU’s current guards would have been starting centers for most of the program’s past teams and now, the Pios can count on creating their own perimeter mismatches against teams.

Any discussion of Denver’s roster must include one of their biggest ‘energy givers’ in junior guard Korey Hess. A few weeks ago, Wulbrun and his staff rewarded Hess with a scholarship in recognition of his contributions and dedication to the team’s core principles of competitiveness, high integrity, and academic excellence.

The biggest risk to the Denver men’s on-court success comes with a relatively newly constructed backcourt which could result in inconsistent scoring, ball handling, and distribution, especially early on. Point guard Tommy Bruner must stay healthy to manage ball pressure, break the press and distribute the ball to the right spot on the floor. If Denver can replace the leadership of departed KJ Hunt and the deadly-shooting Coban Porter while playing inside-out and outside-in games, the Pioneers could shock a number of top-of-the-table teams who have historically marked any game against DU as an easy win.  Finally, who will take and make the final shot with time running out?

Expect Tommy Bruner to be the starting triggerman next to Preseason All-Summit League second-team guard Tevin Smith and super freshman Justin Mullin. Touko Tainamo or Lukas Kusinas play the ‘big’ depending on match-ups along with Tyree Corbett at forward. Frankly, another 3-4 players may start during the season as well, injuries aside.

Several preseason polls predict a Denver finish in fourth or fifth behind Oral Roberts, South Dakota State, North Dakota State, and South Dakota — it will be a tight battle but we are wearing our crimson & gold glasses and predicting a third-place finish in the top-heavy Summit League. And why not? This team is breaking the norm. The team will almost assuredly crack .500, barring unexpected injuries, in only Wulbrun’s second season at the helm. 17 or 18 victories would send a big message to fans and skeptics that the DU men’s basketball transformation is real and spectacular. Then, with a solid seed in the Sioux Falls tournament…well, let’s just say anything can happen.

After years of hoping and wishing, fans can finally have justifiably high expectations for these Pioneers this season. Fans can now expect DU to field and support a team capable of competing for a Summit League Championship – just like all other Denver teams – nothing more, nothing less. Why not take a page from Wulbrun’s own handbook and expect “excellence in everything we do”?

The season finally begins November 7th against Idaho in Hamilton Gym and frankly, we can’t wait.

Go Pios!

Top photo courtesy of Denver Athletics

15 thoughts on “Denver Men’s Basketball Season Preview: Breaking Convention”

  1. Very excited for the season! Can’t wait to have the Athletics Department legitimate backing lol…., but it feels like Coach and the team are ready to take us to the big dance! What a recruiting job these past 2 years.

    Maybe we can move back into Magess or work towards a non-Hamilton type bball facility!!!

  2. There’s a buzz around this team and this program. It feels like they are ready to make a big leap forward and I’m excited to see what they do when they take the court next week!

  3. Thanks for bringing some attention to a program that deserves it. Great writeup. Looking forward to kicking things off next week!

  4. I had the opportunity to meet the team a few weeks ago, great young men. I’m really looking forward to the season.

  5. Dunker here. I want so badly for DU hoops to be important like it was during my era. It just might happen. 5b gave a great honest preview. Don’t lose faith at early season loses. We will grow as season moves forward. Watch play and individual players improve as the kids get used to each other. We should be strong by the time Summit League play begins.

  6. Dunker again. Please post on Facebook so I can share to parents and alums. We have big bases in Houston, Los Angeles, MINNEAPOLIS, KC, and near Chicago.

    1. Interesting. Makes sense if Big XII takes some PAC 12 teams and establishes a west division. Otherwise, Big EAST for the Zags.

  7. I saw a DU recent practice, and while the team is bigger, quicker and more talented than recent Pioneer squads, I was also impressed with the high level of communication, teamwork and attitude on the floor. The coaches were very intense when they needed to be on technical points, but also seemed to create conditions where players had the opportunity to let their natural talent/creativity flow on the court. And after a few conversations with players and coaches, I was struck by the human qualities of the people in this program- active, engaged, bright, well-rounded and caring for each other and for their community. This is a program we need to get behind!

    DU was last relevant in basketball in 2013, when it finished a 22-win, league co-championship season with a national RPI of 65. That was a decade ago…I don’t know if this 2023 team has a 20+ win season in them, but they I believe will be better than last year’s 11-win team, and should be competitive with all of their Summit League opponents.

    Finally, with winning and progress should come greater respect, internally and externally. If DU can get to the 15-20 win zone, it will really help to show the wider DU administration that basketball is worth the greater investment it deserves…

  8. Great write up LetsGoDU.

    I’m so impressed with Coach Wulbrun and his staff for putting together a program for DU that will compete in the Summit League. It’s clear they hired the right guy a few years ago. So excited for the season to start. Go Pios!

  9. Great preview! Wulbrun has this program headed in the right direction after a decade of lackluster performance from the team. Would be great to see the basketball program shine like the rest of the teams at DU.

  10. It seems like they’ve finally found themselves a quality coach, and the recruitments look really solid as well. I would love for mens basketball to finally gain some success and traction.

    If Gonzaga, Butler, St Mary’s, Loyola-Chicago, and countless others can do it, there’s no reason we can’t either.

  11. I would bet a lot of money that Gonzaga, Loyola, St. Marys, etc had total administrative support. And that support allowed them to build their programs. Right now it is my understanding that we are suffering budget cuts in men’s basketball. Do you really think we are marketing our men’s team like Gonzaga does and did in Spokane? I can tell you from personal experience that Gonzaga went all in on mens basketball back in the day. The student body got involved. And this was BEFORE they became a winning program. Coach Wulbrun can be the leagues best coach, but if he doesn’t get full support from the school and the student body, then he can’t succeed like we want him to succeed. Have you ever been to a Grand Canyon game. I went once and they were like a 9 win team. But the place was packed. The marketing was amazing. We don’t do those things here. We tell them to win and then they will get more. Those other programs went all in, said we are all in. We will give you everything you need. And they the wining followed. Case in point. We couldn’t even get in a 6’9″ guard from Isreal into school who is now at UConn. So unless we get our act together and get Admin; admissions, the budget; the students; the marketing dept. and everyone else together we will be okay. But we won’t be a Butler. Or a Gonzaga. It’s easy to say if Gonzaga can do it we can too. But that is just foolish unless we say what the heck, let’s go all in from a university standpoint.

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