Puck Swami Presents: DU Basketball In-Depth

As part of his support of the Lets Go DU Blog, longtime DU sports fan Puck Swami will be providing his periodic in-depth analysis of DU sports. This first article focuses on the DU men’s basketball program.

DU basketball had its first practice this Saturday, October 2, and November will soon will find us cheering on DU Hoops Team #111 — over 100 years since the Pios' first season in 1904. Unlike most of the rest of America, DU basketball has long been a secondary winter sport here, as hockey has dominated the winters on campus since 1949. And while most of us love to see DU exploit our unique niche of hockey primacy on campus, plenty of us would also like to see DU basketball flourish as another outlet for Pioneer pride. For as great as DU hockey and lacrosse are, they are still regional sports in this country, played by 60 and 70 NCAA Division I schools, respectively. As men’s basketball is played by over 350 NCAA Division I schools, basketball has the potential to spread the DU brand to a truly national audience.

First off, it is fair to say that DU coach Joe Scott has done a lot of excellent work in his eight-year tenure as men’s basketball coach, navigating the Pios from the depths of the national rankings and navigating three different conferences. Scott took over one of the nation’s lowest-ranked D-I programs, when it was so downtrodden that the previous head coach, Terry Carroll, actually stopped showing up at his job half-way through the dreadful 4-win, 24-loss 2007 season under a “personal leave of absence.”

Scott, a former Princeton player and head coach changed the culture of DU basketball by instituting his Princeton system at Denver. This system quickly allowed the Pioneers to become competitive by creating a patient, disciplined and intricate framework that could maximize Denver’s smart, but often undersized athletes (compared to the behemoths other schools are able to recruit).

At DU, Scott’s players have typically been 6-foot-3 to 6-6 ‘gym rats’ who pass and shoot well, hustle, play defense and know how to run the system. And when the Princeton system works, it can a joy to watch. Scott’s back-door cuts, quick passing/ball movement, solid three point shooting and a hybrid match-up zone defense have lifted the Pioneers into a viable D-1 program in short order.

Visiting teams find preparing for a Princeton system difficult, especially facing DU at altitude where non-stop hustle can be a challenge to match. Indeed, the Pios have won nearly 80% of their games at home under Scott. The high water mark of the program so far were the two 22-win seasons from 2011-2013, including the great 2012 ESPN2 televised win over Middle Tennessee State (a Sun Belt conference game that came with a court-storming by the DU students) a WAC regular season title in 2012-2013 and the school's first NIT tourney victory over Ohio University that year. The Pioneers finished that season ranked 63rd in the RPI, 44th in the Pomeroy Ranking, 55th on ESPN's Basketball Power Index and 63th in the Sagarin Rating, all of which were the highest in Denver's history and put DU into the top 25% of overall program performance in the country.

However, with all the success Scott has had raising the level DU program up to 2013, the more recent picture is a bumpy one. Despite all the progress, there is one glaring hole — no Denver NCAA tournament appearances in the eight years of coach Scott’s tenure. Compounding the tough local optics of this situation is the concurrent rise of the other front range D-I programs at CU, CSU, Northern Colorado and Wyoming, who have all since had NCAA tournament appearances in recent years, save for Air Force, who last appeared in 2004, ironically when Joe Scott was head coach at AFA.

Indeed, there has been two-year downturn in the Pioneers’ hoops ascendancy. After the great DU season in 2013, the unusual ‘hardship’ transfer of budding star junior forward Royce O’Neale to Baylor University was perhaps a crucial moment for the DU program. While whispers of “poaching” reverberated when O’Neale suddenly left DU, the Pioneers were clearly shocked and had no replacement for O’Neale. The Pioneers finished 16-15 in 2013-2014 and sputtered to a rough 12-18 season last year, a season where the Pioneers were picked to compete for a Summit League title behind pre-season conference Player of the Year, Brett Olson, who had an up-and-down season as a senior.

DU recruiting has also seen some rough spots of late. Some five players have transferred out of DU in the last two years (Jalen Love, Dom Samac, Drick Bernstine, Cam Delaney and Dorian Butler) leaving DU with less depth and continuity. While some transfers can be expected when players don’t get meaningful playing minutes, Scott does not recruit junior college players, due to the complexity of his system and the long period required to learn it.

This year will find the Pioneers with no scholarship juniors on the team, and six freshmen are joining the program, making the 2015-2016 squad one of the youngest in the country. Seniors Marcus Byrd, Nate Engesser and Bryant Rucker are experienced players and will be counted on to lead the young Pioneer group, but expectations are low.

People sometimes forget that DU has also had to navigate through three different conferences in the last five years, conferences which require different types of players for success. DU’s current home, the Summit League, features large physical centers who are typically 6-10 to 7-0. Last year, DU finally landed a 6-10 freshman center in Daniel Amigo, who had to grow up quickly in his rookie season. Rebounding has always been a challenge for Scott’s teams in Denver, and if the Pioneers are to make waves in the Summit, that area will also need to improve.

DU’s basketball downturn has also affected Scott’s coaching staff. While Scott’s total annual compensation is in the $450-500,000 per year range and his contract is scheduled to end in 2018, DU appears to have sent an early warning shot to Scott last spring, as two of his assistant coaches were fired. This included the primary assistant, Associate Head Coach Mike McKee, who had been with Scott since the Air Force days in the early 2000s.

What is the future of DU hoops? There are several elements at play, but the big elephant in the room is financial.

According to basketballstate.com, DU spent about $2.6 million on men’s basketball last year. This is actually near the top of the range for fellow Summit League schools — just a few dollars behind the conference’s budget leader, Oral Roberts University. That said, some 128 D-I schools spent more than DU on mens hoops in 2014, out of 351 total schools.

To give you an idea of life at the top of the budget heap, Louisville spent $16.3 million on its men’s hoops program last year. That figure may or may not include the purchase of escort services for players and recruits, as alleged in a new book coming out this weekend. The top 25 list of men’s hoops budgets start at about $8 million each and move up from there, with 10 schools spending more than $10 million a year. Further down the list, you will find the big Colorado schools still spending far more than DU on men’s hoops. CU spent nearly $6 million in 2014 and CSU nearly doubled DU’s spend at $4.2 million, all helped by the television revenues coming from conference affiliations driven by football.

By contrast, for other big sports at DU such as hockey and lacrosse, the Pioneers spend at the top level of the national budget range and lo and behold, DU has top level programs nationally in those sports. Could there be a day where DU is spending $10 or $15 million on men’s hoops? Unfortunately, it’s very unlikely. The $2.6 million hoops budget for DU is already about 10% of DU’s total athletic budget of $27 million.

DU has no stated aspirations (or delusions) about being the next Duke or Louisville in hoops. But the Pioneer brass would very much like to be the next Gonzaga — a successful private “mid-major” school that is similar to DU’s size and western location. To be a team like Gonzaga, however, requires making it to the NCAA tourney.

DU has been investing in basketball because they know that even first-round NCAA tourney appearances could change the local brand of DU basketball from a low-key curiosity to a seat-filling civic treasure as well as a calling card on the national scene, where DU’s regular student recruitment ambitions require national awareness. Getting into that elite 64-team NCAA tourney club is anything but easy, however, with 351 programs gunning for one of slots and some 128 of them outspending DU to do it. I believe that the program needs more resources from the administration to get to the next level. A dedicated practice facility, more TV games and higher guarantees to bring in higher-profile opponents would be steps in the right direction.

Some DU fans would like to see a more up-tempo, run-and-gun ‘showtime' style offense that would put a more ‘entertaining’ product on the floor. But that’s no easy task. High school basketball in Colorado (DU’s primary recruiting ground) struggles to produce D-I level players, especially the high level athletes required to run that kind of offense. DU’s recruits are all currently two-star recruits (on a national scale of five stars), which is typical for the Summit League. DU’s high academic requirements also create more barriers for players, who can choose to play at other less rigorous schools. There is also Scott’s Princeton system, which may not be attractive to some players who prefer the individualistic NBA style of play.

There is also the reality that it’s hard to get higher profile recruits to come to a program with little hoops tradition, playing for small crowds and little TV, at a school where basketball is the #2 winter sports priority behind hockey. DU’s low numbers of African-American students on campus (exacerbated by a surrounding city with a relatively low level of African-American residents) may also affect recruiting, in a sport where about 60% of D-I hoops rosters are black players.

Attendance-wise, DU hoops averaged a little over 3,000 fans per game last year, which is higher than the Summit League average of 2,100 but well under the average NCAA D-I crowd of 4,800. For front range comparison, DU was well behind CU's average of 9,600 fans, and CSU's average of 4,100, but ahead of Air Force’s 2,200 and Northern Colorado’s 1,300 fans per game. DU relies to some extent, however, on large numbers of school children and their families attending day games on donated tickets from the “Rising Stars” program to boost attendance figures. DU student attendance is still mostly low, hampered by fact that DU’s students are off-campus on winter break for virtually the entire non-league home schedule (due to the quarter system here), as well as all of the other local competitive factors that make college sports in Denver a tougher sell here than in other parts of the country.

Scheduling is also difficult in terms of the type of opponents DU can attract to play in Denver. While some Power 5 conference schools (such as Cal and Stanford), mid-major powers (such as St. Mary’s, St. Joseph’s, Belmont) and local rivals CSU and Wyoming do sometimes come to Magness, the vast majority of DU’s home opponents have little brand recognition here. Until DU can start winning the Summit League with regularity, it will be difficult to move to a higher profile conference.

We are entering an interesting period for DU hoops. I get the sense that DU Chancellor Rebecca Chopp clearly likes the whole DU sports program. She has said publicly that she ‘likes what sports can do’ and that she ‘likes winning championships’, and she calls Peg Bradley-Doppes ‘the best athletic director in the country.’ However, Chopp has also expressed concerns about the ‘professionalization’ of college sports. To me, that sounds like academic code-speak for “we like our sports, but we’re not going to spend much more money than we already do.” So anyone that has grand dreams about DU spending $10 million on its men’s hoops program is probably not going to see that dream come true anytime soon. I also think Joe Scott has at least a couple of more years left to prove he can get DU to the NCAA tournament.

An appearance at the NCAAs, when it happens, will be a great day for our school. It probably won’t happen this season since the DU team is very young and not expected to win many games. But the year after, DU should have at lest 10 experienced players, and with Scott going into the last year of his contract, let’s hope it all comes together.

Blog Note: Puck Swami brings historical context to DU athletics paired with his in-depth knowledge of the University to provide valuable insight into DU athletics. 


Anonymous said...

Scott's overall coaching record at Air Force was 51-63. He then went to Princeton, his alma mater, and in three seasons was 38-45.

With Scott as the head coach, the Tigers finished with a 2–12 Ivy record in 2006–07, its first-ever last-place finish in the Ivy League. That season, Princeton scored just 21 points in a loss to Monmouth, tying a then Division I record for fewest points scored in a game since the inception of the three-point line. The Tigers also fell to Carnegie Mellon University — a Division III opponent. It was the first such defeat in school history.


Why did DU hire him?

Anonymous said...

1 He got Air Force to the NCAA tournament in 2004, which is what DU wanted to do with its program
2 He was at Princeton, a place that has high academic restrictions and values, which was appealing to DU
3 He was willing to come here for the price DU could pay

Dunker said...

Half the coaches in Division 1 make less then Scott.

Very balanced and fair analysis by Puck.

This is one reason Scott is failing. He's a screamer. Kids tire of it. After a year or 2 of the yelling, kids transfer. Remember, it takes a long time to learn the "Princeton System". By the time kids should be comfortable with our style of play, the kids are elsewhere and the process starts all over again.

Dunker said...

Guys, don't knock the Summit League. Nobody else wanted us. Peg saved our program by getting us into the Summit.

Dunker said...

One last thing,

Last year on National TV, former Xavier and UVA coach Pete Gillan had this to say on Scott: great coach, tough guy.

Under normal circumstances, lots of truly capable coaches would love to work at DU. same for student/athletes. However, the Summit League is a tough sell.

Anonymous said...

Puck Swami said:

Appreciate the kind words about the article. Nobody else runs long, in-depth stories about DU sports these days, so it might as well be the LetsGO DU blog, where the DU die-hard fans live..

Dunker makes an interesting point about Scott's coaching style. I also wonder about the old-school coaching style that Scott brings in this day and age of the Millennials he's coaching. Some kids respond really well to the screaming, others less so. Coach Tierney is also old school coach and known for being a screamer, too, but I guess when you win 7 NCAA titles, few people care as much about your personal style. I also think when we see so much screaming, we assume coaches are like that all the time, when they have warm moments and level-headed conversations with their players, too.

Anyway, I think Scott is a smart, complex and emotional guy that we only see on game days. He clearly knows (and has shown us) how to build a program from RPI #347 to the top quarter of the NCAA teams in six years, but actually staying at that high level has proven to be very hard, and that's not something he's really ever done before.

awready said...

If Scott had warm momemts with players off the court maybe the program wouldn't have the number of transfers it's had over the last few years.

Take a look at the pictures from the first day of practice. Look at Scott's face. First day of practice and he looks angry. If his system is so hard to learn then maybe he should have some patience with young players.

Do you ever see him smile.

How would you feel being subbed out of game and having him in your face yelling at you, virtually all the time.

Scott's style isn't working at DU and it won't. Pay someone else $450,000-$500,000.

The crowds are going to keep getting smaller.

Anonymous said...

The style worked fine in 2012-2013 when DU won the WAC and went to the NIT. Did the players somehow get super-sensitive in only two years?

The reason DU slipped in the last two years isn't because Scott yells at the team -- It's because the staff dropped the ball in recruiting. DU had no replacement for Royce O'Neale's transfer. They also knew Bernstine had a big ego and signed him anyway, and he didn't really see the floor for the Pios. The Pios also didn't sign Amigo until late, passing on several big guys that might have helped the year before. We can blame that on Scott, since it's his staff, but there's a big reason those assistants are gone - they screwed up.

The latest transfers (Love, Delaney and Butler) are concerning. But certainly, Scott has been a yelling coach for a long time and these guys all knew what they were signing up for when they committed to DU.

5BWest said...

I come at this from a slightly different vantage point. We have six new guys coming into the program and guys coming back who care about the program. They are all here because they believe this is the right place to be. Ultimately, this young group could form the nucleus of a future league champion and ultimately, an NCAA playoff team but only if there is an environment that allows them to reach their full potential together. I think Puck Swami laid out the realities in a very honest way. I would hope, regardless of the past, positives & negatives, we do everything we can to support this team to grow and develop to the best they can be.

They are going to be very young and inexperienced. But all the players are wearing crimson and gold with Denver on their jerseys. They are representing their team, themselves, and DU. While the rest of the stuff always takes care of itself, ultimately, they will personally own and experience this season and either buy-in or check-out based on what happens going forward. They don’t know or care much about the past. Neither should we.

Anonymous said...

9 Players have either left or been forced out in the last three years.
Transferred: Royce O'Neale, Jalen Love, Dom Samac, Drick Bernstine, Dorian Butler, Cam Delaney
Not Retained with one year of eligibility left: Blake Foeman, Griffin McKenzie
Left Program: Jake Logan

Anonymous said...

Why doesn't DU's basketball team have Midnight Madness like other colleges?

young60 said...

5bwest said: They don’t know or care much about the past. Neither should we.

Seriously? History isn't relevant?

Anonymous said...

DU has the annual Fan Jam, its version of Midnight Madness. This year, it's on Oct. 14 at 6pm (free).

The feeling I get from DU is that if they ran it at midnight, very few people would show up. It's just not there yet as a basketball market.

Dunker said...

5bwest is correct. I came down hard on Scott above, but I'm still one of DU's biggest hoops fan. He's our coach and I want him to succeed; heck I want him to flourish. As for the players, whoever wears a DU jersey gets my love and support.

NBA Fantasy Basketball said...

We could not always get what we want, that’s a given, but sometimes expectations do hurt. These 5 guys probably did not do your fantasy feelings any favor.

Here are this mid-season’s fantasy basketball disappointments:2016 Mid-Season Fantasy Basketball Disappointments. Bye..