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(Information in this team report is as of October 1.)
Denver coach Terry Carroll knew Yemi Nicholson would eventually be a good player. He didn't know Nicholson would immediately be a great one.
Nicholson, a 6-10, 240-pound senior, entered 2004-05 without a career start, and he averaged just 12 minutes as a sophomore. But Nicholson took the Sun Belt by storm last season, averaging 18.1 points, 8.4 rebounds and 3.0 blocks.
So much for growing pains. Nicholson led Denver to a first-place finish in the West Division and was chosen Sun Belt Player of the Year while helping Carroll collect conference coach-of-the-year honors with a 20-win season.
The Pioneers reached the league championship game, which landed them an NIT date at San Francisco. Denver led in the final minute against a pretty good Dons team that had beaten Gonzaga earlier in the season but ultimately suffered a 69-67 loss.
Carroll doesn't hesitate when asked what surprised him most about Nicholson's overnight excellence.
"Everything," Carroll said. "I don't think I anticipated him being the shot-blocker he is. When (Brett) Starkey was here, he was so big and strong that he got into Yemi and it made it tough for him to block his shot.
"I knew Yemi would be able to score, but I had no idea he'd do anything as well as he did. He runs the floor pretty well, too."
Nicholson wasn't the only factor in a smooth transition. Denver's entire frontcourt was new last season, and 6-6 junior Antonio Porch (12.8 ppg, 6.3 rpg) got his career untracked nearly as easily as Nicholson. Porch went to the free-throw line the same number of times as Nicholson (133), and shot 85.7 percent.
"Really, Antonio Porch's season was equally surprising," Carroll said. "At the beginning of last year we're wondering how good is Antonio Porch going to be."
Andrew Carpenter (8.1 ppg, 4.7 rpg), a 6-2 senior, was another instant hit last year after transferring from junior college. He led the team in steals (1.7) and also averaged 2.7 assists.
Of course, what remains to be seen is how much all of this productivity was a byproduct of the effective guard play of multi-year starters Rodney Billups and Erik Benzel, who are no longer around. Benzel's shooting range was such that he pretty much distracted defenders from 28 feet in. Benzel is the all-time Sun Belt leader in three-pointers (323). He shot 42.8 percent while making 101 three-pointers last year.
Billups knew how to find him on secondary breaks and when to feed the post. He finished fourth in steals and assists on Denver's career lists, and averaged 6.5 assists as a senior.
"You build a team with good guards and we had two good ones," Carroll said. "Erik stretched defenses. Yemi needs someone out there to make shots."
The heir apparent at point guard is 6-2 junior Alex Cox, who red-shirted last season after playing with Carpenter two years ago at Daytona Community College.
"Cox will have every opportunity to be the point guard," Carroll said. "He's a tough, hard-nosed guy and he's a better outside shooter than Rodney was."
Ideally, it'll be others doing most of the spotting up and running around screens. Carroll said Porch can be a perimeter weapon. So could 6-6 junior shooting guard DaShawn Walker, who made 40 percent of his three-pointers in junior college. He averaged 16.9 points while setting single-season records for three-pointers (87) and free-throw percentage (.926) last season at Indian Hills (Iowa) Community College. Walker, 6-4 sophomore Joseph Jackson (1.4 ppg, 1.3 rpg) and 6-5 senior Brett Seger (4.8 ppg, 1.8 rpg) are all vying for time on the wings.
Seger made 19-of-47 three-pointers last season, a 40.4 percentage that was second on the team behind Benzel. Steve Wetrick (2.0 ppg), a 5-10 sophomore, made 10-of-21 treys as a freshman.
"We should have plenty of guys who can shoot the ball, and Yemi is a good passer who will find you out of the double-team," Carroll said. "I think we can replace the offensive part of our backcourt. But what about the defense and the leadership, the bringing it to practice every day?"
Grit must be measured with time, but better depth this year can be projected. Six-foot-six sophomore David Kummer (1.7 ppg, 1.1 rpg) might've started as a freshman had he not gotten injured in August.
Kummer wasn't able to play until Jan. 27, and was relegated to a baptism by fire while Denver was in the heated homestretch of staying atop its division. A breakout season from Kummer wouldn't surprise Carroll.
Nicholson's backup is 6-9 senior Terrence Gordon (1.6 ppg, 1.9 rpg).
"He could start for a lot of teams," Carroll said. "We're excited about our potential depth. If these guards do what we think they can do, we'll have a chance at a nine- or 10-man rotation."
BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS
Denver was 12-1 at home in 2004-05, including an 8-0 mark in the league. The Pioneers like to use their mile-high Magness Arena to their advantage. Above the opponents' locker room exit is a sign reminding players of the altitude, and Carroll said it's not uncommon for Denver trainers to try and unnerve visitors by asking if they would like oxygen to be placed behind their bench during the game.
But such psyche jobs might feel like a welcome distraction to the tall task truly at hand for visitors this year. The Nuggets' Pepsi Center won't be the only Denver hardwood with an NBA player on it.
"I think the exciting thing about Nicholson is the upside," Carroll said. "This will only be his fourth year of organized ball."
But even with Nicholson's low-post game a year older, it's difficult to see Denver doing more than treading water in the wake of Benzel's and Billups' exit. Then again, Carroll would probably gladly take his chances with another one-shot deal at the NCAA Tournament.
For the most comprehensive previews on all 326 Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college basketball, the 25th anniversary edition of Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbook.com or call 1-866-805-BALL (2255).