‘Intriguing’ may sound like an unusual descriptor for a college basketball team. However, in this era of intense roster turnover due to the ease of the transfer portal and increasing NIL (Name, Image & Likeness) deals at larger schools gutting many mid-major rosters, there are more unknowns than ever heading into the season for Denver men’s basketball – and nearly every other mid-major college basketball team as well.
Head Coach Jeff Wulbrun enters his third year piloting DU men’s basketball with a new-look squad, after being essentially depleted of the majority of his starters/experienced players via the transfer portal (Justin Mullins and Tevin Smith) and graduation/team losses (Lukas Kisunas, Tyree Corbett, Coban Porter and Marko Lukic).
The returning roster showcases a solid blend of youth and experience as the returning players have added strength and quickness over the summer break However, eight new players have also joined the team – seven scholarship players and one true freshman, making predictions tricky. Also joining Wulbrun are two new assistant coaches, Alex Mumphard and B.J. Porter, who have been running the squad through their preseason paces.
Can Denver men’s basketball improve on last year’s record (15-17, 6-12)? We believe Coach Wulbrun and his staff will continue to stoke Denver basketball fortunes in his third season at the helm. As we said in the opening, this is made all the more challenging by player mobility via the transfer portal and the NIL (Name, Image & Likeness) era. In our opinion, a winning record and 17 to 18 wins would be great progress for this team. Remember, when Wulbrun took the reins two seasons ago, DU was the worst D1 basketball team in the land. How will the new team skills, chemistry and trust evolve over real-time game pressure?
The Pioneers are a mystery, even in their own conference with the addition of the eight relatively unknown additions. In the annual Preseason Summit League Basketball Poll, the Pioneers were pegged as the last-place team. Don’t bet on it – some experts are calling this edition of the Pioneers a ‘dark horse’ who could finish as high as third in the conference and make a Summit League Tournament run (see 14:20 into the review):
The team is also developing off-court cohesion that could hold them in good stead during the course of a long season.
The architect of this team is Wulbrun, steeped in experience turning struggling basketball programs around. Wulbrun has embraced the changes in college basketball, while retaining his passion for coaching and teaching. At the end of the day, with all the landscape changes, the head basketball coach may be the most important ingredient in developing program success and consistency. Wulbrun has shown the temperament and experience to navigate and lead the program into this new era of DI basketball.
There are plenty of reasons for optimism, starting in the paint, where we expect DU veteran Touko Tainamo (6’9″) and seven-foot newcomer Isaiah Carr to provide one of the best one-two front lines in DU history. Tainamo gained more evadable international experience by playing for the Finnish National Select Team in the FISU World University Games in China last summer. Already a proven NCAA D-I stat-stuffer (10.6 ppg/6.4 reb), Tainamo added new moves during the summer to complement his existing skills to score off the dribble, hit the open man, crash the boards and move without the ball. His ability to hit the three-point shot should open up more space for the Grand Canyon University transfer Carr to rebound and score in the paint.
Speaking of the newcomers, the 7’0″ Carr, the first seven-footer in DU’s modern D-I era, will bring nimble moves and a 240-pound frame into the pivot. He has soft hands and plays with a sense of efficiency and calmness in the paint which Pioneer fans have perhaps never seen from a DU player of his size. This allows him to rebound the ball on the offensive and defensive glass, get tip-ins, secure rebounds and play ball screens to open up the game for DU’s improved perimeter players. The duo of Tainamo and Carr could be a game-changer for DU – a team that has battled for consistency around the bucket. Wulbrun, a longtime former assistant who has worked with many effective bigs over his career, lights up when discussing Carr’s skills and potential with three years of remaining eligibility.
To help out the front court, DU is adding more perimeter athleticism and scoring. With a focus on guard play and a deep backcourt, Denver is not extremely deep behind Tainamo and Carr on the front line. Pedro Lopez-Sanvincente is ‘first-in’ to relieve Tainamo & Carr. The veteran 6′-8″ Spanish junior forward brings experience, energy and a three-point shot to draw-out opposing defenses.
Denver’s three-guard formations feature some big wing players who should be able to pick up the slack around the basket. On the wing, look for 6’6″ junior Isaiah Addo-Ankrah to play outside-in with his energy, size and length. Ankrah is a Texas-San Antonio transfer with a high-end motor and an excellent 3-point shot with two years of eligibility remaining.
The DU backcourt should be even better this season with a deeper squad of excellent, high-percentage shooters to relieve some of the pressure on DU scoring leader Tommy Bruner. Denver must improve on its 33.5% three-point shooting last season — a huge aspect of the modern college game that often failed last season. The Pioneers must also prove that they can defend the three-point shot as well. As always, time will tell if this new mix of old and new players can generate the right chemistry and urgency to get stops on the defensive end and to not turn the ball over themselves. Can the guards hold up on the defensive end, especially with so many new faces against a conference with tons of outside shooting and strong returning rosters at schools like Omaha and South Dakota State?
Senior Tommy Bruner (15.9 ppg., 4.2 assists) will be running the point for Denver. A double-digit scorer and All-Summit League player, Bruner is set-up for another outstanding season directing the team on the floor. Wulbrun believes Bruner, a South Carolina native, could compete for conference MVP, if all the pieces fall together. Bruner’s wingman will be 24-year-old Jaxon Brenchley, a (Covid) fifth-year grad transfer from the University of Utah. With four years of Pac-12 experience at Utah and a year of mission work already under his belt, Jaxon should provide a steady, mature hand in the backcourt. He has played proven minutes in intense D-I environments and will provide shooting, leadership in the two spot and can do damage from either the outside or the inside. Brenchley is also married to a Denver Nuggets Dance Team member and as the team’s lone married player, has already filled the team’s “grandpa” role in helping to mentor the younger DU players on and off the court.
In addition to new backcourt mate Ankrah, true freshman guard DeAndre Craig should see considerable minutes. Craig was awarded Associated Press All-State Basketball 3A First Team honors in his home state of Illinois and was well-recruited by a number of D-I programs. DeAndre should develop at the DI level as the season progresses and add to DU’s perimeter firepower. Returner 6’6″ guard Ben Bowen, a Wyoming transfer last year, has added strength during the offseason and should also see considerable minutes after displaying significant growth and improvement over the summer and in scrimmages. Bowen has focused on passing, ball handling and shooting this offseason and has shown significant improvement in all three areas, according to Welbrun.
Returners red-shirt junior Drake Muller (returning from 2 years of injury trouble) and sophomore 6’8″ guard Dan Makuna should see some action as the season progresses. Community college transfers Josh Lee and Tyson Garff have also shown flashes in practice, as have Devin Carney (a freshman who red-shirted at Duquesne University last season), local freshman Keean Lloyd (Cherokee Trail High School – a walk-on) and redshirt junior Carlos Fuentes (Alicante, Spain) – all guards.
The bottom line is that this Denver team will be deeper. While thin on the front-line, the skill of the top two players (Tainamo & Carr) could be through the roof, and that duo should stack up with any front line in the Summit League. However, any injuries or foul trouble may leave the Pioneers exposed in the paint. Denver will be able to shoot and score from the perimeter. The ability to defend, especially against the three-point shot, will ultimately be a key factor in the team’s overall success. The Summit League features some of the best three-point shooting teams in college hoops so Denver must be productive on both ends of the floor. The one thing you can’t tell in watching practices and scrimmages is live-fire defense. Last season’s team gave up 75.1 ppg – too many by nearly any measure. This year’s team must improve defensively, especially to secure more wins.
In summary, things are looking up for Denver men’s basketball this season, considering the considerable level of player attrition the program has suffered due to elements beyond its control. The Pioneers should feature an extremely competitive, watchable team. Nearly every player we talked to this preseason states that this group is “close” and “committed to team-first play”. Those words will be tested in less than a week. Denver starts on the road Monday against the University of California-San Diego (UCSD) on the Triton’s campus in San Diego. The first home game will be Thursday, November 9th against Cal Poly at Hamilton Gym at 7:00 pm MT.
Intrigued? We sure are and you should be too.
Jack Reis, President of DU’s Crimson & Gold Collective is encouraging fans to support our basketball student-athletes in a ‘different kind of NIL’ , built by fans, to provide our student-athletes visibility in the Denver community while enjoying a productive and positive experience while at the University of Denver. Learn more HERE
Top photo courtesy of DU Athletics