The conference basketball season begins tonight when DU men’s basketball (9-3, 0-0) faces Omaha to start the Summit League schedule. We interviewed head coach Jeff Wulbrun to get his thoughts on the overall program progress and the prospects for his team during the 2022-23 season.
LetsGoDU – There is a buzz around DU Men’s Basketball. Alumni, former players and fans are noticing an exciting product on the floor. You have been a part of several turnarounds. Does this remind you of any of those?
Wulbrun – Great question. There are common denominators at every stop, as you are attempting to have a level of success that hasn’t happened in a long time or has never been achieved at the school. I have always thought the most important ingredient in building a strong foundation is finding high-character and high-integrity people, that chase excellence on and off the court. I have never wanted to sacrifice my values or standards in building a program. This foundation is the culture of your program. In all the “rebuilds” I’ve been a part of you’re taking over at a time when the program has hit a very low point. I think it’s important to show your excitement, enthusiasm, commitment – and you must set the bar high in terms of work ethic, and as a head coach, you must lead the way in those areas. Of utmost importance is assembling a staff that reflects your values, ideas, and standards and have them demonstrate that in their teaching, mentoring and as a role models. You must build their trust with a plan and a tangible vision, short and long-term and “invest” in your players on a personal level.
DU is probably most like my time at UAB. It was a complete roster rebuild and culture overhaul for us to get to the NCAA tournament in Year three at UAB. It took convincing the university administration that an investment in basketball would bring value to the university. We saw increases in applications and enrollment, along with a spike in attendance following our NCAA tournament run. It is my goal at DU to provide the same value to the university with our basketball program.
LetsGoDU – If someone is reading about DU basketball for the first time, why will they enjoy watching your Denver basketball team?
Wulbrun – I think we play offense the way the game is meant to be played; with aggressive great ball movement, player movement, unselfishness and one agenda-to get the best shot for the team on every possession. I think they’ll see a team that genuinely cares about each other on the court, a team that is well coached in fundamentals of the game, that has a clear identity and plays to it every game on offense and defense, and attempts to be the hardest playing team on the floor every time we step between the lines.
LetsGoDU – Your team has three major injuries. What have you learned about your team during their absence?
Wulbrun – Unfortunately, it’s part of the game and you must adapt to the setbacks. I think first and foremost you must show great empathy to your players who are going through season-ending injuries, it is extremely difficult mentally and emotionally for that player, let alone the physical aspects. I thought our team this year was designed to have great depth and great competition for spots, however with the injuries our depth has allowed us to still sustain a high level of play. If there is a silver lining, it is some of the players who are forced to play heavy minutes will benefit from the experience and that certainly has been the case with Justin Mullins, Ben Bowen and Marko Lukic’ this season and that will prove very beneficial when everyone is healthy.
LetsGoDU – The team seems to take every game to the wire and find a way to win. Is that going to be the norm this season?
Wulbrun – It has certainly been the norm this season. It means we’re very consistent and we’re battling every game, especially on the road, where the recipe is hanging around, hanging around and trying to steal it at the end – and we’ve done a good job of that this season. I think our team has a lot of confidence playing down the stretch of games. I can see it in their eyes at the under four-minute timeout, they feel it’s their time. Those close wins have given us confidence that I hope will be beneficial in league play.
LetsGoDU – You have six players scoring in the double-digits – Bruner, Smith, Mullins, Tainamo, Corbett & Kisunas- wow! Rather than talk about each of those players specifically, is there a player or players who have surprised you the most this early in the season?
Wulbrun – It’s a testament that we play unselfish basketball and have willing passers on the team. I love great balance and we certainly have it on our team. Justin Mullin’s development as a freshman has been impressive and is a byproduct of his minutes, much like Tevin, Touko and Coban last year. Tommy has done such a great job of running our team. I feel we have an advantage inside in every game we play because of our experience in Tyree Corbett, Lukas Kisunas and Touko Tainamo. Tev is ready to be a top player in the Summit League and we’re anxious to get him back from injury. We’ve missed him very much, we feel it especially on the defensive side of the ball.
LetsGoDU – With only one non-conference game left against Oregon State, what is the one area you are most satisfied with at this point and what one area needs the most improvement?
Wulbrun – I love that we have embraced and play to our offensive identity every game. We lead the country in restricted area shots, 2nd in FG% (field goals), 2nd in FTA (free throws attempted) and 4th in FTM (free throws made). Offensively we need to value the ball better and reduce our turnovers. Defensively, we have done a good job defending the three point shot, but need to do a much better job protecting the paint.
LetGoDU – Culture and character are often over-used terms when talking about teams. However, your team and staff seem to genuinely embrace your vision and values – on and off the court. How do you identify those characteristics in recruiting and how do you sustain them during the high-stress of a DI basketball season?
Wulbrun – You have to stay true to your values. They just can’t be words on the locker room wall. I think you need to recruit to your values and culture and teach and reference them often throughout the season. Our five core values are Integrity, Selflessness, Accountability, Investment and Discipline. I can tell you they are reflected in everything we do on and off the court. I coach to them, teach to them, do my best to model them and I would hope that people who watch us play, say we play to them.
LetsGoDU – Denver has been selected in a Summit League Preseason Coaches Poll as a top-half conference finisher. How do you balance conference results vs. peaking for the conference tournament?
Wulbrun – I think as a coach, you always have an eye on playing your best ball in March, which means doing a good job taking care of your guy’s bodies throughout the year, while still pushing them to achieve at a high level. I also think your team’s mental strength and mindset are so important, even to the point of trumping the physical aspect. So, I try to do my best to keep them in a good space mentally and physically and have meaningful short-term goals to strive to achieve, with an eye on performing your best at the end of the season. I thought we did that last season as we swept our last two games on the road vs. St. Thomas and Western Il and played tough vs. North Dakota St. in the conference tourney.
LetsGoDU – You have a number of new faces. Now that you have experienced a Summit League regular season, what will you tell your team to expect when they play Omaha on the road Monday night?
Wulbrun – We’ve played seven games on the road in the non-conference – that’s a lot, and I think we’ve learned that playing anyone on the road is difficult. We’ve gone 5-2 in those games and have developed confidence and trust in each other that we can be successful on the road. That has been great preparation for Summit League play. I think we have tremendous parity in the league this season and anticipate close games throughout league play. It is a physical league with tough post players, big guards and highly skilled players. We’re excited to embark on our league schedule, knowing every game will be a challenge.
LetsGoDU – Thanks for your time coach – and good luck!