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.
Had an incredible time with @DU_MensHoops in Normandy yesterday. To visit the place my grandfather fought during WWII when he was only 18 was a special experience! It’s amazing where the game of basketball can take you! pic.twitter.com/eItPCPDosi
— Rob Zewe (@RobZewe) August 12, 2022
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.
Role embraced ✅
Scholarship earned ✅
— Denver Men's Basketball (@DU_MensHoops) October 14, 2022
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.
— HotMicWithDomIzzo (@HotMicWDAY) October 12, 2022
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.
Top photo courtesy of Denver Athletics