The Denver Pioneers men’s basketball team is coming off a 3-year string of misery where they were consistently a team at the bottom of the Summit League. The misery came to a crescendo at the end of last season when the Pioneers who had 1 win in Summit League play faced off against Omaha who also had one win in Summit League play in the last two nights of league play. A spot in the Summit League Tournament on the line and Denver playing at home, the Pioneers were swept by Omaha. This sealed the fate of then Head Coach Rodney Billups.
From there the Jeff Wulbrun era began in Denver. In speaking with those close to the program, several words kept popping up as this season approached. Words like new attitude, accountability, change, and togetherness. Just 7 games into this season it seems clear to this writer that those words were more than buzz words or words to pump up the program.
Any time a team brings in 9 new players as Denver did this season there are going to be some growing pains. Those will continue this season but it is also abundantly clear this year’s version of the Pioneers already has so much more fight in it than in previous seasons. Last season Denver’s only division 1 victory was an overtime win over North Dakota and often in games where the Pioneers got down a person could turn off the game knowing nothing of interest was going to happen. That is already not the case this season. Today’s game against Air Force was a perfect example of this. The Pioneers held a 17-16 lead halfway through the first half and then the wheels came off. Air Force finished the half on a 31-8 run and led 47-25. With just over 16 minutes remaining The Pioneers trailed by 23. As I reached towards my tablet to turn the game off I thought I would give it some time. This team has shown some fight this season and I was curious what would happen. My decision to continue watching was rewarded. The Pioneers kept fighting, defending, forced turnovers and the lead kept shrinking. Symbolizing the fight of this Denver team, Guard Taelyr Gatlin, who is one of the few Denver players returning from last year buried a late 3 to cut the lead to 1. All of this with confidence in spite of missing his first 4 from behind the arc. A Mikey Henn jump shot with 49 seconds remaining gave the Pioneers the lead. Air Force made 2 free throws and a late clock three-point attempt by Gatlin fell short as did the comeback. Even though the comeback fell just short the feeling of a different culture remains.
Maybe the feeling of a group of fighters shouldn’t be surprising. Starting with the head coach Denver is filled with underdogs. Coach Jeff Wulbrun started his assistant coaching career in 1986 and got his first opportunity as a division 1 head coach 35 years later. Not only is the head man a fighter but he has a roster full of underdogs. There is not a single player on the Pioneers roster who has averaged double figures on a division 1 basketball team, and almost no one had played together prior to this season. Given this, it wasn’t clear where the scoring, rebounding, defense, and leadership would come from on this Denver team. Yet things are coming together quickly for the Pioneers.
All of this isn’t to say that the Pioneers are drastically ahead of their predicted 9th place preseason. There are many challenges in bringing in the number of new players Denver did. It does seem clear however that the trajectory is going in the right direction.