Why the Denver Pios think they’ll dance at the 2022 NCAA Tournament. The Men’s BASKETBALL Tournament.

You find out who your friends are at 4:30 a.m. You find out who your brothers are at 4:30 am and you are underwater.

“The second time I went back to change our sweaters, man, I went under the water and just froze,” recalls University of Denver goaltender KJ Hunt, and not proudly.

The creation of programs sometimes becomes strange. And humid. It is never a straight and linear process. One of the funkiest chapters in the rebirth of the Pioneers’ men’s basketball program took a detour the first weekend in October, through El Pomar Natatorium, hours before dawn.

The second of two days of bonding exercises for the Pioneers began before 5 a.m. on a Saturday and dropped them by the pool. As part of a program designed and administered by The Program, a team building and leadership training service used by athletic departments such as Oregon, Michigan, Tennessee and the State of Florida, the DU’s male basketball players were tasked with teaming up for a communication exercise. The challenge: Put on a sweatshirt, take it off, swap it, then put the swapped shirt – in 13 feet of water.

“I panicked out of nowhere because I took the hoodie off,” continued Hunt, a 6-foot-3 transfer from Morehead State. “And the next thing I knew I heard this WHO and that water started pouring in and I was like, ‘Oh, my brother.’ I just froze. I had nothing in mind. I had my hands up like this … ”

Hunt raised both arms, suddenly, as if to signal a Broncos touchdown.

“… And my guy Taelyr (Gatlin, another keeper of Pios) pulled me up.

“And what happened was it really showed me, like, these are really my brothers. I already knew that, but it solidified it… you don’t get that kind of love. “I’ve been on teams where you don’t get it. And I told him I appreciate it. He doesn’t know he probably saved my life, honestly.”

Hunt is on his fourth different college basketball team in five years. He has only known his DU teammates for a few months. He is already convinced that this is the closest college locker room he has ever been a part of, drowned or on dry land.

“We care about each other,” said Hunt, who averaged 6.9 points per game at Morehead last winter. “I was part of the teams that participated in the tournament (NCAA). The thing that separated these teams from the other teams was our camaraderie and our brotherhood. We have held each other accountable. “

“Always proud”

RESPONSIBILITY is one of the words engraved in gold and hung on a wall inside the Pios locker room, not far from the words INVESTMENT and DISCIPLINE. A list of core values ​​can be found right on the Xbox and the sofas in the gamer lounge – a mission and a mantra.

“I think you are a ‘builder’ or a ‘support’ as a coach,” said Pios first-year coach Jeff Wulbrun, who replaced Rodney Billups last March after spending all five seasons. previous years as an assistant at Stanford. “In my coaching career, the places where I’ve been and where I’ve coached, where we’ve had to develop the program… I’ve always been proud to be able to do that. It was this task that attracted me (about DU).

Wulbrun’s 61-year-old biography in macro isn’t all that different from Broncos coach Vic Fangio: decades have connected as a respected and trusted assistant, to land his first big job head coach after age 60. Addicted to baseball (the Dodgers, in this case, as opposed to the Fangio Phillies). A mentor and a teacher who sweats the thumbs up – and the details – that can get you beat.

As a lieutenant at Cal (1986-93), Illinois State (’93 -97), UAB (’12 -16) and Stanford (’16 -21), the average record posted by the program during the season before Wulbrun’s arrival was 15-14 years old. In two years, these teams have won an average of 19 games.

Along Jewel Avenue, the bar is low. The canvas, a blank. Wulbrun is a men’s basketball coach at a hockey school which is the best and worst thing about this gig. Win or lose, the puck falls again Friday night.

DU is one of 45 Division I hoop programs that have yet to compete in the NCAA Tournament, a small fish swimming anonymously in one-off ponds.

Since all Pios sports, including men’s basketball, moved to Division I in 1999, DU has produced just four seasons of 18 or more wins, and three of them (2009-10, ’11 -12, ’12 -13) have arrived in a four-year run under former coach Joe Scott. Over his past 18 seasons, DU holds a 248-290 (0.461) record in men’s hoops, a clip that ranks just below TCU (0.462) and LaSalle (0.462) and just ahead of UT-San Antonio (0.456) and Eastern Michigan (0.456).

“I would love to be in the conversation for the most improved program in the country this year,” Wulbrun said. “If that were to happen, then we’ve done our job in terms of establishing and implementing the components that are necessary tools to have a championship level program. I don’t think I’ve used the word “rebuild” once since I’ve been here. “

MPJ’s little brother joins the party

But it’s definitely a refresh. Between the pandemic and the transfer portal, college basketball rosters are now lighting up in a hurry. Of the 15 players who opened the preseason camp with the Pios, nine have been on the program for just a few months, and eight of them signed up without visiting campus.

Five new Pios, including Hunt, have been transferred. DU is only bringing in 21.2 points per game from last season’s 2-19 roster.

“A melting pot,” first-year goaltender Coban Porter, younger brother of Nuggets star Michael Porter Jr., told Pios’ new lineup.

Wulbrun tossed players from 10 states and four countries into that pot, including Italy, Spain and Finland. It’s when you start to stir vigorously that occasional bubbles of hilarity rise to the surface.

“I’m getting used to the accents, though,” Hunt said with a laugh. “I think (forward) Touko (Tainamo) insulted me sometimes, and maybe he didn’t tell me. I might need to learn (Finnish).

Like Fangio, Wulbrun’s long-standing relationships with the company got him off to a quick start, at least on the recruiting front. Porter, a 6-foot-4 combo guard with the smooth long-range MPJ kick and MPJ smile, came on the recommendation of former Washington coach Lorenzo Romar, a longtime confidant of Wulbrun and the Porter family.

Calm and thoughtful, young Porter quickly became friends with his classmate and teammate Tevin Smith, a talkative, talkative and gifted 6-4 guard from Danville, Ill., Where he was ranked by 247Sports as Hope. # 8 in the state. of Illinois for the class of ’21.

An athletic wing option that had weighed in on offers from DePaul and UT-Martin, Smith pulled out of Cal State Fullerton before moving to DU to play under Pios new assistant Brandon Dunson. Wulbrun had coached Dunson at Central Catholic High School in Bloomington, Ill., More than ten years ago after leaving the state of Illinois.

“Everyone was coming from all over the place,” Smith said. “And we just clicked right away… we’re like brothers.”

Brothers with dreams of caviar. Last March, Hunt blocked the horns with West Virginia and Bob Huggins in the first round of the NCAA tournament. He thinks the Pios – those brothers – can get him back there.

“When I spoke to (coaches) through Zoom, they were so genuine,” Hunt said. “They really had a plan and a vision. And I believed in that vision.

What was the plan? Vision?

“To be in the tournament (NCAA) this coming season,” Hunt replied. “They want to change this program.”

This season?

“This coming season. Yes sir.”

In a one-off Summit League? Difficult to ask.

“He is. Most definitely,” Hunt said. With that, he smiled. A survivor’s smile. “But it’s not impossible. At all.”


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