DU Looks to Build Momentum at Magness
DU students get ready for the game against Middle Tennessee during ESPN's broadcast.
"Sometimes in life, you only get one shot."
That's what Denver head coach Joe Scott told his team before the Pioneers' high-profile home game against Middle Tennessee State on February 4, televised nationally on ESPN2 -- a first for Magness Arena.
Scott wasn't referring to DU's "shot" at a division title, a conference crown, or a first-ever NCAA bid. Instead, he was talking about the unique, one-time opportunity to impress not just a rare national TV audience, but more importantly, the local fan base. ESPN's presence helped lure the sort of large, amped-up home crowd (and, in particular, student section) that Magness Arena usually sees only for hockey games. So this was an opportunity to convince that crowd that Denver basketball is worth watching, and worth coming back for. It was the Pioneers' one big chance to announce basketball's arrival at this hockey school in this pro-sports city. And boy, did they seize that chance.
Less than 48 hours removed from a heartbreaking loss on the road, barely 24 hours after an awkward flight alongside their opponent amid a burgeoning snowstorm, Denver played as well as they have all season, if not better. The Pioneers matched or perhaps even exceeded their level of excellence in earlier signature wins (in front of much smaller and less raucous crowds during final exams and winter break) over Southern Miss and Saint Mary's, en route to a 75-60 win over MTSU, a nearly-ranked team that was previously unbeaten in league play and is considered one of the top "mid-majors" in the nation this year.
"We played really well for 40 minutes," Scott said after the game. "I didn't see a drop at all over the 40 minutes. We sustained the way we played the whole time." The Pioneers showed "the best of who we are, on both ends" of the floor, he said.
In short, Denver looked like a team that could compete with almost anyone in the country, if given a chance in the NCAA Tournament. Said MTSU coach Kermit Davis: "I watched them in that Saint Mary's game way back, and that looked like the same team right there. They can beat Top 20 teams if they play like that."
"I've seen it before this year," Scott said, "but in that environment, in a big game like that, coming off of Thursday's heartbreaker, you've got to give our guys a lot of credit for playing at such a high level with zero turnaround time in a big game. I'm really proud of them."
"For our guys to step up to the plate today and perform at such a high level...with the students and everybody watching — we showed everybody who we’ve been all year long," Scott added. "And now our students have seen it, and maybe that can sort of galvanize our student body."
That remains to be seen. Denver has been on the road since the MTSU game, but tonight, they return to Magness for the first game of a three-game homestand to conclude the regular season (and also conclude their stint in the Sun Belt, assuming WAC commissioner Karl Benson's surprise defection to the SBC doesn't presage an eventual WAC-Sun Belt merger that would render moot Denver's big move to the WAC next year).
Tonight's game, scheduled for a 5:00 PM tip, is probably the biggest of the three: a matchup between the second- and third-place teams in the Sun Belt West, Louisiana-Lafayette and the Pioneers. Then on Saturday, Denver hosts cellar-dweller Louisiana-Monroe at 4:00 PM (the second half of a doubleheader with the women's team, which plays at 1:30). Finally, next Sunday is the regular-season finale at 1:00 PM against North Texas (the first half of another doubleheader with the women, who play at 3:30), a traditional Sun Belt power and another competitor for seeding position.
The games are a very big deal for Denver in terms of Sun Belt Tournament seeding, as I outline in more detail on my "Mile High Mids" blog. Because they limped into the MTSU game having lost 3 out of 4, and because they subsequently split a Florida road trip, the Pioneers (18-8 overall, 8-5 Sun Belt) have little margin for error.
If Denver wins all three games in the season-ending troika to finish 11-5 in Sun Belt play, the Pioneers have an excellent shot at a #3 seed in the league tourney, which would place them on the opposite side of the bracket from near-certain #1 seed MTSU, a team Joe Scott called "the class of the conference" even after beating them by 15 points. So it is definitely preferable to avoid the Blue Raiders until a possible league title game, which is what a #3 seed (or, less likely, a West Division crown and a #2 seed) would accomplish.
By contrast, if Denver loses even one of the three season-ending home games, the Pios might find themselves falling all the way to the #6 seed, which would mean they'd have to play a first-round game in Hot Springs instead of getting a bye into the quarterfinals, as the top 5 seeds do. That means Denver would need to win 4 games in 4 days, instead of 3 games in 3 days, in order to win the league tournament and qualify for the Big Dance -- a much taller order, needless to say. (Denver has no realistic chance of an at-large NCAA bid. They must win the Sun Belt tournament to punch their Dance card.)
DU hopes the students can show the same support
during the upcoming homestand.
Photo by Brendan Loy, Mile High Mids
So, a big home crowd against Louisiana-Lafayette, Louisiana-Monroe and North Texas would certainly be helpful, and there is plenty of reason for fans to care about these games if they care about DU hoops. But did the throngs who made the MTSU game such a success -- many of whom, particularly among the students, are not "regulars" at basketball games -- have a good enough time almost two weeks ago that they'll want to return? That's the big question, which will begin to be answered tonight and Saturday.
Speaking after the MTSU game, DU alum Kyle Lewis, last year's senior co-captain, said he thought at least some of the students would return for future games. "I definitely think so. It's been a night-and-day change from last season with students, fans, everyone -- there's some excitement around the University of Denver. It's great to see."
Joey Leon, a DU senior who played a central role in organizing the unprecedented coordinated effort among student government, fraternities/sororities and the student spirit committee to whip the student body into a pregame frenzy and encourage attendance at the MTSU game, said afterward that "it went really great" and the "students absolutely loved it." He added that "hopefully, especially with the win, people will come back next time."
Certainly, it's virtually inconceivable that any of the three final games will be able to match the atmosphere of the Middle Tennessee win, which began with the Pioneers' arrival for pregame warmup being greeted with the band playing the DU fight song, accompanied by wild cheers from the uncharacteristically packed student section -- "That was unbelievable! The student section was unbelievable!" gushed senior co-captain Rob Lewis -- and ended with the students rushing the court. Short of a conference championship or NCAA Tournament win, neither of which would take place at Magness, it's hard to envision another scene quite like the one ESPN's appearance helped create on February 4.
Peg Bradley-Doppes, DU’s Vice Chancellor for Athletics and Recreation, was practically bursting with joy and pride after the game. "People dreamed about this," said the ebullient atheltic director. "You saw Dan Ritchie and Joy Burns come out on the court at the end — they built this facility 12 years ago, and we became Division I in all sports, and for them to see this type of crowd and this energy and the kids singing the fight song and rushing the floor — it was great."
(You can read more about the atmosphere, view lots of photos of the crowd and the game, and watch video of the court-rushing, in my blog write-up.)
Sophomore star Chris Udofia called the students' enthusiasm "heartwarming," adding, "We don't see it too much around here, but when we do, it's really nice." He said the crowd's support gave the team more confidence and created an extra home-court advantage.
Rob Lewis, a fifth-year senior who was Joe Scott's very first recruit at DU, used the word "unbelievable" four times in describing the students at the MTSU game. "They were a part of our win today," he said. "They were huge. That was really cool." He added that "you'd like to have it like that every night," but conceded, "obviously that's probably not going to happen."
Will students and fans take Lewis's words as a challenge? The answer will come soon enough. Tonight, Saturday and next Sunday, we will find out how much of that energy DU will be able to recapture -- and how easy of a path the Pioneers will have to a first-ever NCAA berth that would really change the paradigm and push excitement for Denver men's basketball to an entirely new level.
Brendan Loy is a Denver attorney, and an alumnus of USC journalism school and Notre Dame law school. In high school, as a student manager, he earned a varsity letter in girls basketball. Nowadays, he blogs about mid-major men's college basketball in Colorado at Mile High Mids. He is also a contributor to the Mid-Majority's 800 Games Project. You can find him on Twitter at @brendanloy and @MileHighMids.