Royce O'Neale, Brett Olson and Chris Udofia
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Royce O'Neale, Brett Olson and Chris Udofia
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Udofia, O’Neale Mature as Denver Hoops Leaders
Courtesy: Steve Coulter,  
Release: 12/07/2012

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Everything's bigger in Texas.

Or, as Denver basketball head coach Joe Scott has learned over the past two seasons, it's at least more athletic.

Scott's tapping of top-level high school talent from Texas has benefited the program tenfold from where it was when he took over the reigns in 2007, transforming DU basketball into a 22-win juggernaut last season that fell just shy of national tournament qualifications.

When DU entered its lone season in the Western Athletic Conference, attention was drawn in two specific areas - who would lead the team following the graduation of six seniors last spring? And how would the Pioneers fare on the boards when their top forward was only 6-foot-6?

Scott believes there is one answer to both questions, placing trust in junior Chris Udofia and sophomore Royce O'Neale, a pair of athletic forwards from Texas who are first and second on the team in scoring, rebounding, assists and steals.

Udofia, the 2012 Sun Belt Conference Defensive Player of the Year, averaged 14.5 points and 5.2 rebounds as a sophomore while leading the team with 73 blocks. O'Neale made his impact off the bench as the sixth man, recording 9.9 points and 5.8 rebounds per game.

"We've improved athletically, I think that goes without saying," Scott said. "Depth in athleticism is by far the greatest we've had. Everybody is fast, everybody can jump and everybody can do multiple things on the court. Most importantly, we have guys who can play multiple positions and guard multiple positions on defense, which gives us a lot more freedom personnel-wise."

Udofia (Irving) and O'Neale (Killeen) aren't the first Texas exports Scott has recruited to come play hoops in the Mile High City. Before them were the Hallam brothers - Chase and Travis - who in 2010-11 were second and third on the team, respectively, in both points and rebounds.

And Scott still wasn't finished with Texas, bringing in sophomore guard Cam Griffin (San Antonio) last season and freshman guard Bryant Rucker (Frisco) this season.

Scott's focus remains on his two budding stars and how they each will help improve the team's rebounding ability. Last season, the Pioneers finished nationally ranked 344th in rebounds per game with a 26.5 team average.

"We have to become a better rebounding team and to do that we must improve technically," Scott said. "Defensively we need to make the opponent take difficult shots and take the next step - make sure we get position after their misses. The more rebounds we get on defense, the more guys we will have getting down the court so the offense will show up and score easy baskets."

In addition to rebounding, Scott is focusing on his forwards' leadership skills this season, as Chase Hallam returns as the lone senior, following an injury-plagued junior campaign where he averaged 7.5 points per game.

The Pioneers young nucleus consists of the Texans - Udofia and O'Neale - as well as sophomore point guard Brett Olson, a Highlands Ranch, Colo., native who has started all 38 games in his career at DU.

"Last year we had a number of seniors, so it wasn't about who was going to lead the team every day," Scott said. "We knew they would lead by example no matter who was playing what role. Leadership is definitely important for us, finding the guys who can lead the team day by day and show us how to prepare. Some guys have been asked to be in that role, and two of them only have one year of experience."

The opportunity hasn't fazed Udofia or O'Neale, both of whom have accepted the roles this season and welcomed the challenge with open arms.

"Coach has given me more responsibility this year," said O'Neale, who has started all seven games this season. "If I wasn't able to handle it, then he wouldn't have given it to me, so it's definitely built on trust."

As for Udofia, DU's captain, he recognizes how important developing and maturing alongside O'Neale and Olson will be for the program's future.

"We definitely have a very good relationship, and that's because Coach has picked out our roles for the team and we all have a special role, especially with getting stuff going on offense," Udofia said. "With Brett, our goal is to get him more shots this year because he can shoot, and with Royce, it's to continue to make sure we get it to him in the wings and let him drive to the hoop."

Although only a junior, Udofia is referred to as the "veteran" of the Pioneers' young team - the eighth youngest in the nation - benefitting from two years of experience.

According to the 6-foot-6 forward, he notices he has a better understanding of the game since he arrived at DU in 2010.

"All my experience over the last two years has helped me see the game better," Udofia said. "Freshman year until right now, I've been able to see the ball better and move without it a lot easier. In previous years, I probably ran around without seeing the purpose of all the motion, and now I can see the game more and be a lot calmer and do a lot more things with confidence."

While confidence is an essential ingredient to any athlete's success, it is concentration on the defensive end as well as rebounding that will make the difference for Udofia and O'Neale as they continue to transition into team leaders.

"Defensive rebounding is what wins games, so we know how important that is for us," O'Neale said. "We have to stick to following the shot when it goes up and getting as many second and third chances as possible."

Udofia echoes this emphasis.

"Defense is a concrete part of our team, and it's my goal to keep playing like I've been playing to help out my teammates and show the new guys how the University of Denver plays defense," Udofia said. "It's important to set an example right off the bat."

As for the Texas connection, O'Neale doesn't believe it has made his relationship with Udofia any different than any other bond he has formed since arriving at DU.

"We do talk about Texas a lot, but our bond isn't any different than any other group of guys on the team," O'Neale said. "Chase and Chris are big Cowboys fans, but Cam and I are more passionate about University of Texas football. We all have our similarities we share with one another, though."

As far as basketball is concerned, the future looks bright for the Pioneers with Udofia and O'Neale leading in the post and with Olson guiding the backcourt.

"It's really important for us three to have a lot of chemistry, because we are the core and it goes in the direction we take it in," O'Neale said. "We each have to get better every year for the team. I think that's what's most important."

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