While DU is currently basking in the glow of its exciting nationally-ranked gymnastics and lacrosse teams hurtling toward potential postseason success, all is not well at University and Asbury. As we write this, major waves of NCAA transfer and NIL changes are currently swamping the men’s basketball program, forcing a huge roster rebuild in the rapidly stratifying, money-driven Division I collegiate sports landscape, and further structural NCAA changes may end DU’s golden era of NCAA sports excellence.
The Denver men’s basketball program has already lost at least two of its best basketball players to the exploding transfer portal – sophomore Tevin Smith (10.9 points per game, 3.4 rebounds per game, 30.2 minutes per game) and promising freshman Justin Mullins (9.8 ppg., 3.1 rpg., 29.1 mpg) are now gone. Right now, only five of 15 roster players from last year’s team are still slated to return to DU, and only two of the returnees are starters, pushing DU into a major roster overhaul, the second in as many years. This kind of major roster overhaul is happening all over mid-major basketball, as programs like DU have now become feeders to other larger programs almost overnight, as top players head to better programs, and benchwarmers head lower down the food chain to lesser programs. Smith and Mullins have joined a record 1,399 players in the basketball transfer portal nationally, forcing teams like DU into a roster rebuild each season.
While no sit-out penalty and immediate eligibility transfers offer more playing time and help players to step into better programs are big drivers, make no mistake, the promise of now-legal NIL (name, image & likeness) money paid to players by boosters has also changed the game, even for schools like DU. While DU players may not make the big money that some transfers are getting at top hoops programs, our sources indicate that five-figure NIL cash offers are the reality for some DU transfers, and those offers are difference-makers in getting players to take the money and leave DU.
What does this mean for Denver Basketball and, more broadly, for DU Athletics?
We’ve been beating the “the landscape of college sports is changing quickly” drum for years, and now, the waves of changes are here. NIL is the law of the land – there is no turning back.
We know that Denver will never win the massive big-money NIL game, but every team (even in the Summit League) has established a NIL ‘collective’ – the newest name for college booster groups eager to support their players. Thus, every D-I school is now a player in the NIL game, big or small. Denver supporters are getting into the NIL game, too – not to make student-athletes wealthy (like many of the power-five schools) but to at least help cover basic living expenses that many larger schools already cover so that underprivileged athletes can enjoy a similar college experience to those enjoyed by other students. College football and basketball players often come from lower-income families and require greater financial support, so these two sports are on the NIL cutting edge now. However, the reach of NIL is already extending well beyond those two sports over time into other college sports. For example, some volleyball players are already getting five-figure offers from boosters to join or stay at top programs.
The top three NCAA D-I women’s basketball programs are reported to have a combined $10 million in adjusted Name, Image & Likeness (NIL) deals. On the men’s side, Florida Atlantic donors launched a NIL collective for the team as their Cinderella run took them all the way to the Final Four. According to Ross Dellenger of SI, the collective has already raised $65,000 in its first week of fundraising, with a goal of $100,000 by the weekend. The money will eventually be distributed to players, but there is the awareness that time is of the essence, as other programs seek to poach FAU players. “We want them to stay,” said Kevin Koscso, one of the co-leaders of the collective, per Dellenger. “There’s been a lot of talk and conversations and offers already from other teams.”
Structural governance changes are on the horizon as well. According to a CBS Sports article, an exhaustive study of NCAA members has revealed: “61% percent of Power Five schools support establishing their own division within the NCAA that could decide its own operating rules.” The Power Five encompasses 65 schools — those that make up the five largest and richest conferences in college athletics (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, SEC) plus Notre Dame. Long term, the fear is that those 65 (and perhaps some other very well-capitalized basketball-dominant nationally-competitive hoops schools, such as in the Big East) will break away into a premier division and Denver (and other schools on DU’s hoops level) will be stuck competing in a de-facto lower division. The long and short of it is that DU currently enjoys competing with schools like Michigan and Duke in some sports, but those days may be coming to a close.
The transfer portal in basketball has allowed effective free agency for athletes to transfer without penalty, as good players at mid-majors move into higher-level school rosters, and mid-majors are stuck with having to rebuild rosters each year by filling the holes with washouts from good programs, and incoming junior college, international, and freshman prospects.
While we’re seeing this now in the big-time sports, it’s also already happening, though to a much lesser degree, in hockey and lacrosse. The chaos will eventually extend to all DI sports. The lure of full scholarships, ease of movement, NIL money, growing cost-of-attendance (CoA) stipends at major universities, and hefty per-diem payments make the draw nearly unstoppable. Added to this long uphill battle, the University of Denver now has a 23-year-old Ritchie Center, beautiful on the outside but aging on the inside – and it is now older than the players DU is recruiting. The facility is showing its age and has fallen to the middle of the pack in the Summit League. Oral Roberts, Omaha, South Dakota, and St. Thomas have or are in the process of completing the construction of newer facilities than the Ritchie Center.
Outside the recent upgrades of the Diane Wendt Fields, the hockey locker room at Magness Arena, the Peter Barton lacrosse locker room additions, and updated nutrition areas, there has been very little major new capital investment from DU supporting athletics over the past two decades. In some cases, DU athletics staff and team budgets have been cut and are even now below their pre-COVID levels – despite spiraling recent inflation.
If all this sounds a bit fatalistic, it is because we believe that the DU administration has become somewhat complacent with its past athletic success. The tidal wave of DU’s NACDA Director’s Cups wins rewarding overall program excellence over the last decade or two has papered over the growing gap between the University of Denver athletic department and its peer schools, even within the Summit League. As the old saying goes, “Past performance is no predictor of future results.”
DU will soon be unable to compete against the Power Five in major sports in the future – that is just the reality, given the different levels of revenue, investment, and governance changes.
Denver must invest in facilities, coaches, and student-athletes at a level that allows DU to compete at least against our peer schools, and they must do it now. ALL DU athletic programs should be benchmarked against their conference peers and supported financially at the top level for at least the league in which those teams compete.
With a Denver median home price of $554,990 and a two-bedroom apartment costing $1,750 -$2,250 per month, coaches, assistants, and support staff need adequate compensation to either come to DU or retain current talent. Denver is the most expensive market between the coasts for student-athletes, coaches, and support staff.
In the interim, Denver Athletics must actively compete in this changed college sports landscape. The University of Denver needs to adapt quickly or fall even further behind its conference peers.
The departure of two key basketball players is merely the canary in the bigger coal mine.