Chris Udofia

What to make of the Denver Pioneers? (VIDEO)

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Expectations were high heading into the 2013-14 season for the University of Denver. The Pioneers returned their top player in Chris Udofia, and were coming off a season where they finished 22-10, but 16-2 in the WAC — they have since transitioned to the Summit League after the dust settled from conference realignment.

In their final year in the WAC, they seemed destined to reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history, but were upset by Texas State in the conference tournament, a Bobcat team who they defeated twice during the regular season by double-digits.

In the preseason, I was high on Denver. So high, in fact, that the Pioneers were ranked as the fifth best team in the 2013-14 Mid-Major Power Rankings. Did I swing and a miss with that lofty projection? After the first seven games, it looked like that was the case as Denver sat at 2-5 with their lone wins against Alaska Anchorage and Southern University. They dropped from a ranking of 63rd in Ken Pomeroy’s preseason rankings all the way to 187th following the Southern game. They weren’t just losing games, but they weren’t playing well even in the losses.

Granted, Denver’s first three losses came against California, Stanford, and Harvard — the latter two games of which they were competitive — but it appeared they weren’t living up to the hype.

Not so fast. The Pios — after sleepwalking, to an extent — through their first half of the non-conference portion of their schedule, are back on track. Wins over Colorado State and Wyoming were good signs, but throttling Belmont by 28 points earlier this week garnered the attention of the nation — at least those who had circled Denver vs. Belmont on their college basketball viewing calendars.

An even-keeled Joe Scott never panicked. He said after the big win over Belmont:

We’ve been playing really well over the last six games. We’re 5-1 in our last six and a whisker of a rebound away from 6-0. If you just look at the improvement of our team over the last month, it’s really unbelievable. It’s just a credit to all our guys, a credit to the team. It’s a credit to the leadership of Chris [Udofia] and Brett [Olson] and Cam [Griffin], and guys have just stayed with it. We knew we have a chance to become a pretty good team. It was just a matter of putting the pieces in and finding the right rotation.

Olson and Udofia have both jump-started Denver and been the keys to the improvement. After the first four games of the season — all losses — Udofia had scored in double-figures just once and Olson twice. Since the loss to Pepperdine at the Great Alaskan Shootout, each has notched double-figure scoring totals in every game.

A trademark of Scott’s strategy is to slow the game down to a snail’s crawl. Denver plays at the ninth slowest pace in the country. They are extremely methodical on offense and make defenses work, but when the Pioneers don’t score it doesn’t much matter the pace they play. Fortunately, Udofia and Olson have been much better on the offensive end during the streak.

Scott said about the early season games, “At some level, you’ve got to credit our schedule for making us grow up real quick.”

Will the strong play continue and will Denver win the Summit in their first season in the league? That remains to be seen. One hot streak doesn’t make a season. With three of their next five games coming against UC Irvine, UTEP, and St. Joseph’s, Denver has an opportunity to continue to prove that the 0-4 start was an anomaly.

Michigan State playing zone? It’s possible

Tom Izzo
Associated Press
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Throughout Tom Izzo’s tenure at Michigan State the team’s half-court man-to-man defense has been a staple, and the Spartans have generally proven difficult to have a high rate of offensive success against. The reliance on that defense is why Izzo’s conversations earlier this summer about using some token full-court pressure due to the shortening of the shot clock caught some people off-guard.

According to the Detroit Free Press there’s another wrinkle the Spartans may use, and it’s likely that this wrinkle will show up more often than the full-court press. During Friday’s opening practice the Spartans worked on a 2-3 zone, and Izzo wants his assistants to make sure the team works on the defense consistently throughout the season.

That’s also why zone in general isn’t going to get heavy play at MSU, but having it as a tool could be beneficial — especially in games with touch fouls on the perimeter called in droves.

“I told (my assistant coaches): ‘You hold me accountable to working on it every day some’ … I have a tendency to drift off on that, and I don’t want to drift off on it,” Izzo said of the 2-3 zone. “But we will be, rest assured, a 90-some percent man-to-man team still and hopefully take some of those principles to zone.”

As noted in the story one of the risks in using pressure is allowing quality shots, which is why it’s unlikely that Michigan State will go to it. But even with Izzo vowing that his team will work on the zone, that doesn’t mean they’ll be playing it as often as Syracuse does.

Man-to-man has been Michigan State’s staple and it will continue to be. But it doesn’t hurt to look for other ways to keep opponents from getting the looks they want, especially if teams have five fewer seconds to find those shots.

Virginia used 3-on-3 to adjust to new shot clock

Malcolm Brogdon
Associated Press
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When the college basketball rules committee made the decision to trim the shot clock down to 30 second from 35, one reason for the switch was the desire to improve offensive production. With offensive numbers at their lowest point in years, proponents of the move see the shot clock change as a necessary move if scoring is to improve.

Whether or not that winds up being the case will be seen throughout the upcoming season, but teams are still having to make adjustments during the preseason.

Virginia, which has played at a snail’s pace (and with great success, mind you) in recent years, made some adjustments to their summer work in anticipation of playing with a 30-second shot clock. One adjustment was more games of 3-on-3 with a 15-second shot clock, which forced all involved to be more decisive in their offensive decision-making.

While the pack-line defense will always be a staple of Tony Bennett’s teams, the feeling in Charlottesville is that they’ve got the offensive firepower needed to both play faster and be more efficient offensively than they were in 2014-15 (29th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy). One of the players who will lead the way is senior guard Malcolm Brogdon, who led the team in scoring and was a first team All-ACC selection, and he discussed the team’s outlook with Mike Barber of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

And even though Anderson’s highlight-reel shot blocking was the thing that frequently fueled fast-breaks for U.Va. last season, Brogdon and [Anthony] Gill said they expect this year’s team to actually push the tempo even more.

“I think we’re going to be a team that gets out and runs more,” Brogdon said. “I think we’ll have three guards on the floor, most of the time, will be able to handle the ball as a point guard and get out in transition. I think we’ll play a lot faster.”

Brogdon and Gill are two of the team’s three returning starters with point guard London Perrantes being the other, and the Cavaliers also return most of their reserves from last year’s rotation. That experience will help them on both ends of the floor as they prepare for a run at a third straight ACC regular season title. And in theory it also allows them to extend themselves a bit more offensively than they did a season ago.