Strong Start Defies Hoops Expectations

Heading into this Pioneer hoops season, who would have predicted at 5-2 start, 10 players averaging double-digit minutes, 67 points per game and a 5 point scoring average higher than their opponents?

As promised in the season preview, we are reviewing the men's basketball team's progress in 2015-2016 by breaking the season into quarters. They just completed the first quarter of the schedule and have advanced with flying colors.

Evaluation Period: 
  • Quarter 1 - Three Cable Car Classic games plus three home games
DU 58 - Milwaukee 71 (L)
DU 55 - Santa Clara 33 (W)
DU 82 - Lipscomb 69 (W)
DU 69 - South Alabama 56 (W)
DU 79 - Idaho State 69 (W)
DU 52 - Wyoming 68 (L)

Freshman Development

In the preview, we stated that the Pioneers need to have 1-2 freshmen from this year's class become eventual all-conference players if DU is ever going to win a conference championship and participate in March Madness. While it's still early, DU might just have these pieces in this year's freshmen class.

As one reader stated, they are not playing top tier programs to start the season. However, this is an ideal schedule to allow this young team to gain playing time, give two-star recruits a chance to get time on the floor, and develop an identity. You get the feeling watching this group that they have taken on the persona of their coach, Joe Scott, and are playing with a chip on their shoulder.

Freshman starter Joe Rosga leads the team in minutes (32 mpg) and is scoring 10.0 points per game. He is playing the 1 and 2 guard and can rebound, steal, and generate assists. In other words, this freshman can do it all. He is the power source for the team.

Freshman forward C.J. Bobbitt is averaging 8.0 points per game and leads the team with 4.3 rebounds per game. He has started 6 games but sat out the Wyoming game due to illness. While he leads the Pioneers in turnovers (15), his athleticism and creativity is a huge plus for a program that has lacked both in the recent past. He has a great first move in traffic and has the potential to be a 4-year star with additional minutes and refinement.

Freshman starter Thomas Neff, a 6'5" first year guard, is not as finished a floor player as either Rosga or Bobbitt but he  is quietly delivering the second most average minutes, 24, on the floor. He is a good ball handler with only 4 turnovers and can generate assists (12) and get rebounds (18). He has yet to develop a consistent scoring (3.4 ppg.) touch but if he continues to get minutes on the floor, that is likely to come around. He was a solid 20+ ppg. scorer in high school so minutes played will be critical for Neff.

6'6" freshman guard Jake Holtzman, another prized freshman coming off the bench, is averaging 10.5 minutes. He is scoring 2.0 points per game with efficient shooting and 8 assists. Like Neff, his scoring and defense will continue to improve as he gains added experience, strength, and confidence. Both Holtzmen and Neff show potential and give DU outside size and length on the perimeter. 

The Vets Surprise

Marcus Byrd has been DU's most effective big-man, averaging 25.2 minutes per game, scoring 9.0 points per game, grabbing 3.4 rebounds a game, and he leads the team is assists (18) This 5th year senior has been the most consistent contributor of the big men. It is hard to think where DU would be without his steady leadership through the first quarter of the season yet he may be the team's most under-appreciated player on the floor.

Christian Mackey has been steady with 2.7 points and 2.6 rebounds per game in his 12.7 minutes per game. Daniel Amigo who injured his ankle early in the season is averaging 6.4 minutes per game, 1.8 rebounds and 3.4 points per game. The Pioneers still need more out of this front line, especially from Amigo, when they get into the meat of Summit League play. DU is getting out-rebounded by 3.0 boards per game. This is an improvement over prior years and can be over-come by high shooting percentages, winning the turnover battle (+12) and steals (+6).

Nate Engesser, coming off the bench, has been the team's biggest scoring threat. While he had a sub-par game against Wyoming, his prior 6 games were solid. In 22.1 minutes per game, he is leading the team with a 14.4 points. He is shooting an astonishing 62.7% from the floor and a ridiculous 53.8% from 3-point range. He makes it look effortless and provides huge energy and veteran leadership. He has the best outside shot the program has seen since Brian Stafford. He can score from the outside, the inside, and the wings.

Bryant Rucker, a 7 game starter, is the most improved player. In 22.0 minutes per game, he is averaging 11.0 points per game on 68.1% shooting from the floor and 57.1% from the three. He hits big shots, knows how to play in the offense, and provides huge energy. His only area for improvement is minimizing turnovers (11).

Jake Pemberton looks like a different player since he added strength and confidence to his game. He is playing 18.2 minutes per game. He is averaging 3.4 points on 50% from the floor, 2.4 rebounds per game, and leads the team with 9 steals. If not for Rucker, Pemberton would be the 'most improved' player for the Pios.

Duke Douglas is scoring 2.6 ppg and averaging 10.1 minutes. He is shooting over 53% from the field and 50% from the 3-point arc on top of two rebounds a game. He started the Wyoming game when C.J. Bobbitt was ill. Douglas is a player getting results by playing to his strengths within the system.

Playing Style

The shortening of the shot clock to 30 seconds has been a huge benefit to the Pioneers. It makes them jump into their offense immediately when they pass mid-court so there are 0 low-intent passes. This has sped up the offense and seems to be improving shooting percentages and shortening the defensive effort on the other end of the court.

Playing up to 11 players, with most receiving double digit playing time, this team looks almost like a hockey team with a constant flow of fresh players coming into the game and players coming out. This has three benefits. First, this is giving freshmen valuable playing time. Second, players are staying fresh and wearing down opposing teams in the second half. Third, since DU is a smaller team, they are not wearing down with too many minutes.

The big question remains, when DU starts Summit League play and begins to fall behind in games, will they stay with the plan to play 10-11 players or will the bench be shortened to 6-7 players.  Also, DU needs improved interior play on offense and defense. On offense, when the outside shot is not falling, DU needs more low post offensive efficiency. On defense, DU needs to limit easy buckets from larger teams. In other words, DU needs to mitigate their size disadvantage.


It is clear that Joe Scott enjoys coaching this team. The players have appeared to rally behind Scott, his system, and substitution approach. Scott has created this team in his own image by taking recruiting into his own hands and picking a team of eager learners and under-appreciated upperclassmen who have taken this season personally and seized the opportunity.


As expected, home attendance has been poor. As mentioned in the past, the home non-conference schedule starts during finals and runs through the winter break. Time will tell if winning will provide a cure or if the low attendance trend will continue even when students return. Regardless, this team looks like they would play just as hard at the local YMCA as they would in front of a full Magness arena.


The 11-18 prediction for the season is at serious risk with already 5 wins in the first quarter of the season. But it is still early. Led by an upstart senior class and a talented freshman class, they have been a huge surprise to all.


Puck Swami said...

Superb analysis, Tim.

This team is going to make turnovers and it's still a team that needs to learn how to close out other teams late in games. But they are a bunch of really scrappy gymrats, and it seems like rebounding is really improving over previous years, probably through being in better positions.

Shooting has been pretty good, but when the three balls aren't falling, the Pios are going to need to find other ways to win.

allright said...

I don't understand why having so many players playing 10+ minutes a game is a positive. I think shuffling players in-and-out of the game disrupts continuity and flow for the team. Also it tells me players aren't in shape to go longer.

The players on the bench better be able to play and contribute, I mean, they were recruited to play basketball at DU.

I've only seen one game, the loss to Wyoming. I believe in the second half on two straight possessions Byrd hit shots. On the next dead ball he was subbed out. Why? He scored back-to-back and now he's yanked?

I agree with Puck Swami that when three's aren't falling they're going to need other ways to score. They didn't against Wyoming. And when the Summit games start DU's lack of size is going to be felt when players are getting banged around by Summit teams, almost, if not all, have big, strong guys underneath.