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.