Joe Scott has revived Denver’s basketball program. This is no surprise if you watched Scott while he worked with Air Force’s program, which rose from the bottom of the Mountain West Conference to the top during his four seasons. (Unfortunately, the program has returned to the bottom.)
Scott directed the Pioneers to 22 wins last season. This, remember, is a program that finished 4-25 in 2006-2007, the season before Scott took over.
As Scott heads into 2012-2013, he’s looking for a replacement for four-year starter Brian Stafford. He thinks he might already have found that replacement in former Colorado Springs Christian School star Nate Engesser, who will be a freshman at DU.
If you know Scott, you know he can be a harsh critic. He’s not easy to please. I have never heard a coach yell as loudly as Scott did during his years at Clune Arena.
But bring up Engesser, and Scott is full of praise.
“I love Nate’s demeanor,” Scott said while relaxing in his office. “I love his approach. He’s an unbelievable listener. I mean, he really listens.
“In some ways, he’s a throwback player. He’s fun to play with. He’s really fun to play with. When he’s on the court, basketball is a team game. He’s always helping the team. That’s his game. And he can really shoot.”
The Pioneers return three starters – Brett Olson, Chase Hallam and Chris Udofia – and Royce O’Neale is expected to grab another starting job. That leaves a possible starting job for Engesser.
“He’s the kind of kid who this year, if he’s tough enough, he fits in perfectly with our guys,” Scott said. “He fits in really well with them.”
Scott is not shy about turning to freshmen, even on a loaded team. In 2003-2004 at Air Force, Scott relied on freshman Jacob Burtschi as his team’s defensive stopper. Burtschi was the rare Air Force basketball freshman who had not attended the prep school. Burtschi traveled straight from his high school in Oklahoma to big minutes at the academy.
In 2007-2008, Scott’s first season at DU, former Evangelical Christian star Rob Lewis ended the season as a starter. Lewis’ success at DU helped Scott take a more positive view of Colorado high school players, especially players from smaller schools.
That explains why Scott pursued Engesser, who just finished a sensational high school career at CSCS, scoring 1,909 career points (ninth highest in state history) and leading the Lions to a 49-2 record over the past two seasons.
“I thought it was the perfect fit,” Engesser said earlier this year about his decision to sign with DU. “The coaches have great confidence in me.”
Scott needs a 3-point shooter to keep defenses from surrounding Udofia, a sleek 6-foot-6 forward who is one of the best players in the region. Udofia averaged 14.4 points this season. He could easily jump to 20 per game this season.
“Nate can be that guy who, when he’s open, can make those shots,” Scott said. “I think he’s got a great chance. He’s definitely a guy you throw in the fire. If you don’t do it that way, you’ll never find out. Don’t have the guts to throw them in there, you’ll never know.”