The @midmajority reaches the Final Four!! Again!!
Above: Royce O’Neale slams home a game-clinching dunk with 1 second left at Magness Arena last night, securing Denver’s 61-57 win over Ohio in the first round of the NIT — the Pioneers’ first postseason win in program history. On the bench, Dom Samac and Cam Griffin go airborne as they celebrate the dunk and win. Associate Head Coach Mike McKee can also be seen pumping his fist in celebration. Behind the bench, Denver fans celebrate, while the sizable contingent of Ohio fans look on dejectedly.
O’Neale’s dunk was the culmination of a memorable game-ending sequence in which Ohio’s Reggie Keely missed a potential game-tying shot with 8 seconds left, Brett Olson and Chris Udofia teamed up to grab a critical defensive rebound (credited to Udofia), Udofia passed it to Chase Hallam, and Hallam — smartly trying to avoid drawing a foul and instead run out the clock — passed the ball up the court to a wide-open Jalen Love, who touch-passed it to O’Neale, who slammed it home. Video highlights here.
Denver will take on Maryland, on the Terps’ home floor, in the second round of the NIT on Thursday at 5:00 PM Mountain Time. Tickets are available. The winner of Denver-Maryland will play either Alabama (at Tuscaloosa) or Stanford (at Denver or College Park) next week for the right to go to the NIT Final Four at Madison Square Garden.
I briefly caught up with Denver athletic director Peg Bradley-Doppes during last night’s NIT game, following up on our previous lengthy conversation about conference realignment. Bradley-Doppes, whose formal title is Vice Chancellor for Athletics and Recreation and Ritchie Center Operations, was a bit more guarded than in our wide-ranging interview last month, and refused to comment directly on an Argus Leader report that Denver has “already told the Missouri Valley no” in regards to the reported possibility of DU replacing Creighton in that league upon Creighton’s departure for the new Big East.
“I will not make any comments on any specific conference,” Bradley-Doppes said when I asked her about Summit League commissioner Tom Douple’s statement to Argus Leader sports editor Stu Whitney that Bradley-Doppes had told him over dinner on March 8 that Denver would stay in the Summit League and not replace Creighton in the MVC.
However, Bradley-Doppes specified that Denver is happy in the Summit League in part because it is “embracing…our institution as we are, academically and athletically.” That appeared to be a reference, at least in part, to the Summit League not demanding changes to Denver’s “menu of sports.”
It has been widely speculated that the Missouri Valley Conference might insist that Denver add baseball (which, per Title IX, essentially requires adding softball as well), and possibly outdoor track and/or cross-country, as a condition of admission to the league. There has also been speculation that a similar prerequisite might exist if the West Coast Conference were ever to consider Denver, probably in the wake of a potential future BYU departure. Bradley-Doppes previously told me, not referring explicitly to any specific conference, that “a dealbreaker for us [is] if they say, you’ve got to add four sports.”
“We feel that the university is in a very, very good position right now, given our geographic location and our menu of sports,” Bradley-Doppes said last night. Asked if the possibility of adding sports continues to be an issue in discussions with conferences, she responded, “It’s critically important. The University of Denver is a private institution. All of our programs at this time are fully funded. We have 17 sport programs. For us to add 2 or 4 sport programs, it would come from our existing budget, which means that it may diminish our overall competitiveness.”
“You never say never,” she added, “but I think we need to be true to ourselves and the institution we are, and the sports that we value: the skiing, the hockey, lacrosse, gymnastics. They’ve had great national success and visibility, and I don’t think they should ever be diminished. They’re very much a part of who we are. We take great pride in that.”
Bradley-Doppes also weighed in on controversy over unofficial mascot Denver Boone, about which the university sent an e-mail to alumni yesterday. (Previous posts here, here, here, here, here and here.) You can hear those comments — as well as the entirety of her remarks on the Missouri Valley, the Summit and realignment — in the audio clip below:
I also asked men’s basketball head coach Joe Scott at the postgame press conference if he had any thoughts on the Summit League vs. the Missouri Valley. Briefly burying his face in his hands, Scott joked, “I always have thoughts,” then proceeded to give a noncommmittal answer and indicate that he is staying focused on the task at hand: beating Maryland in the NIT second round on Thursday. If Denver keeps winning and building its program, Scott said, its opportunities in terms of conference realignment will only increase.
Denver’s NIT game against Ohio is underway at Magness Arena. Winner gets Maryland. Live coverage on Twitter at @MileHighMids.
Denver is on spring break, so there probably won’t be a huge student turnout at Magness Arena tonight, but apparently Coach Joe Scott is trying to get as many students as possible to his team’s NIT game against Ohio. A Facebook status update from the DU D-Club says:
If you are a current DU student, and are in the Denver vicinity and want to attend the DU Men’s Basketball NIT game tonight - your wish has been granted. Coach Joe Scott is buying your ticket! Show your valid DU ID at the box office, and attend tonight’s game for free!
Tip-off is 7:15 PM. Tickets for the general public have been discounted to $5 apiece with promo code “DUNIT.”
Ken Pomeroy gives Denver an 80% chance of winning the game, projecting a 66-57 victory. The Vegas line is Denver -6.5.
UPDATE: Here’s confirmation of Joe Scott personally buying students’ admission to the game. “Students just need to bring a valid student ID to the DU Ritchie Center Box Office to pick up their ticket free of charge. The Pioneer men’s basketball team wants your to help PACK MAGNESS tonight!”
Also, from the Denver Post today:
Scott said the brackets for the 32-team NIT field and the 68-team NCAA Tournament are filled with the top 70 to 80 teams in college basketball. In Scott’s estimation there’s no reason for any of the teams to not consider themselves on the dance floor.
“It’s not the big dance, it’s the other dance,” Scott said of the NIT. “The NCAA runs the NIT just like it does its own tournament. There’s really no reason to belittle the NIT.” …
The postseason game is another step in building DU’s program, Scott said. The Pioneers have won 43 games over the past two seasons.
“We learned that our conference championship was important,” Scott said. “That’s what got us into the NIT.”
Reportedly, lobbying by the WAC helped Denver get in — and good attendance numbers helped them get a high seed, and thus a home game.
In a stunning development, Denver got a #3 seed in the NIT, and will host #6 Ohio at Magness Arena on Tuesday at 7:15 PM Mountain Time!!!
The entire NIT bracket is pretty crazy, defying the near-unanimous expectations of bracketologists who are usually pretty good at predicting this stuff. But hey, I’ll take it, and I imagine so will Joe Scott & the Pioneers!
UPDATE: Here’s John Templon’s reaction to the bracket. Money quote: “I understand most of what happened. Three of my four final teams into the bracket missed. Xavier, LSU and Northern Iowa gave way to BYU, Denver, Ohio or something like that. What I can’t understand is how Air Force and Arkansas got left out of the NIT.”
Here’s the NIT bracket:
While we’re on the topic, some of you may be interested to know that I’m running my annual free, moneyless NCAA and NIT Pools over on my other blog.
Anyway… if Denver beats Ohio on Tuesday, what happens next would depend on who wins the game between #2 Maryland and #7 Niagara earlier Tuesday evening. If Maryland wins, the Denver-Ohio winner would travel to Maryland for a Thursday game (it has to be on Thursday because Maryland is hosting women’s tournament games this weekend). If Niagara wins, they would travel to the Denver-Ohio winner for a game on a date to be named later.
Perhaps the most significant fact about Denver’s unexpectedly good seed is this: if the Pioneers manage to win their first two games, and if anyone other than Alabama emerges from the top part of the bracket, Magness Arena would host an NIT quarterfinal next Tuesday or Wednesday night, with a trip to Madison Square Garden on the line. That’d be pretty cool.
First things first, though. Gotta beat Ohio!
Here’s the official story from DU about the Pioneers’ NIT invite, including Joe Scott’s reaction, and ticket information.
Several players posted their reactions on Twitter:
NIT BAAAAAAABY !!!!!
NIT!! Proud of the squad. Hosting Ohio at home on Tuesday at 715!! #DUMBB
Made the NIT! #wasssssp #NIT #DUMBB
Made the NIT.Number 3 seed. Lets go. We in here.
Made the NIT tournament!! So blessed to still be playing. Time to focus #DUMBB
NIT here we come!
We still in this thang baby #NIT home game Tuesday night
Really happy for the @du_mhoops guys. NIT First Round vs. Ohio at Magness Arena this Tuesday at 7:15 pm. #MagnessMagic #WellDeserved
I’ll be at Magness on Tuesday night, by the way.
It’s officially Selection Sunday, but the NIT bracketologists can’t decide whether or not Denver is likely to get a bid.
John Templon of NYC Buckets continues to say no, though he also continues to have Denver as his “last team out” — so it’s very, very close.
The Bracket Project also leaves Denver out of its NIT bracket.
But wait! There’s hope! Daniel Evans of BracketologyExpert.com has Denver in the NIT as the very last at-large team in the field.
These guys don’t disagree on too much. Templon and Evans have BYU out; Bracket Project has the Cougars in. (But then, Bracket Project has one team too many, because it hasn’t been updated since Stephen F. Austin became the final autobid.) Meanwhile, Templon and Bracket Project have St. Joseph’s in; Evans has them out (with Denver in their place, basically). Aside from that, they’re all in agreement on who gets in.
Anyway, there’s nothing else for Pioneer fans to root for or against. Just cross your fingers and hope… and tune into ESPNU tonight at 7:00 PM Mountain Time.
Speaking of which, I’ve created an NIT Bubble Scoresheet that you can print out and mark up during the show, following along with who’s in & who’s out, so you can keep tabs on how many spots are left.
[UPDATED with new Bubble Scoresheet link. -12:15 PM]
[UPDATED AGAIN; should be final now. -2:15 PM]
The New Mexico State Aggies, led by WAC tournament MVP Sim Bhullar — their 7’5”, 360 lb freshman, affectionately known to the Mid-Majority community as the INCREDIBLY LARGE MAN — are headed back to the Big Dance after beating Texas-Arlington in the WAC final tonight, 64-55.
I wish it were Denver celebrating that autobid tonight, obviously. But congrats to NMSU, and good luck in the tourney! WAC represent!
Also, thanks to Ross Lancaster for snapping the above photo, which SI’s Andy Glockner called the “picture of the season.”
John Templon, NIT bracketologist extraordinaire (and hoops blogger/podcaster at Big Apple Buckets), came out with his latest NIT projection last night. He has Denver as the “first team out” of the NIT field — which is really another way of saying that, at the moment, DU sits right on the “cutline,” and it’s impossible to confidently predict whether or not they’d get an invitation, if the season ended right now.
Unfortunately for Denver, the season doesn’t end right now, and their NIT bubble situation is likely to get more precarious rather than less. Basically, their best-case scenario is to remain where they are now: squarely on the bubble, hoping for the best. Their worst-case scenario is to see another handful of NIT spots get gobbled up by “bid thieves,” at which point they would be a distinct longshot to get an invite.
If Denver doesn’t get an NIT invitation, their season is probably over, judging by the school’s decision last year not to accept invitations to the CBI or CIT.
Much more after the jump, including a list of the teams Denver is competing against for the final NIT spots, and a rundown of Pioneer fans’ rooting interests between now and the NIT Selection Show on ESPNU at 7pm Mountain Time on Sunday.
Last Saturday’s game against Louisiana Tech at Magness Arena was a momentous occasion for the Denver basketball program. In defeating Louisiana Tech by 24 points, the Pioneers clinched their first regular season conference title, the result of months of hard work, excelling where other recent DU teams had faltered.
But at the heart of that celebration was the potential for something bigger and better, and another mountain the program had yet to climb: qualifying for the NCAA tournament.
At no point until they’d won three games in Las Vegas could it be certain that the Pios would win the WAC’s automatic bid, but it looked increasingly likely. It seemed Denver would have the best shot of any team in the conference to have its name called out on Sunday evening on CBS for the country to hear. Ken Pomeroy’s well-regarded site thought it was better than even money: a 56.3 percent chance that Denver would cut down the nets for the second time in a week, this time at Orleans Arena, site of the WAC tourney.
And who knew after that? Maybe enough teams would fall by the wayside in conference tournaments that DU could be a coveted 12 seed, where mid-majors often beat power-conference 5 seeds and make runs to the second weekend.
As you’re aware now, none of those dreams came to fruition. Denver, the No. 2 seed in the WAC, lost to 20-loss, No. 7 seed Texas State, 72-68, on Thursday afternoon in Las Vegas. The Pios’ ultimate goal of making the NCAA will have to wait until the core of the team returns next year, barring any transfers or unforeseen events.
The game began perilously for Denver. Unheralded 16.5-point underdog Texas State began on a 10-0 run in the first five minutes of the contest. In a sign of things to come, Joel Wright, the Bobcats’ star player and leading scorer, converted a 3-point play after scoring inside to cap off the run and began a 32-point outing.
Yet, I wasn’t too worried. This was a Texas State team that couldn’t guard anybody all season and would often go into what Twitter friend Matt Zemek would term “Hoist mode,” up against a team that was one of the nation’s most efficient on offense in the last month. Denver was still getting decent outside looks, but not hitting. As I said on Twitter, it was not time to, well, you know.
This isn’t the way DU wanted to start. There have been some good looks missed, though. No need for, you know, #PANIC. -@rosslancaster
Denver eventually settled down later in the first half. Its shooting percentage was still below average, but it was looking more comfortable. In hindsight, this was the best Denver did all day. When free throws by Royce O’Neale tied the game at 26 with 4:09 left in the half, Denver was back to even footing. But Texas State immediately responded. Wright kept getting inside and kept getting fouled for Texas State, and the Bobcats’ perimeter players like point guard Phil Hawkins knocked down open looks as well.
The score at halftime was, at first, Texas State by four, 36-32, but got changed to a five-point buffer when Hawkins’ two with a minute left was ruled a three post-facto by the officiating crew.
For me, the most crucial takeaway from that point in the game was that maybe, just maybe, Texas State really and truly had something incredible brewing and that Wright could not be stopped by the Denver frontline.
I’ve been more confident about DU’s comeback potential, but the last few minutes makes me wonder if they can stop Wright. -@rosslancaster
My pregame thinking was that whoever set the tempo in the ultimate clash of styles would be victorious. That thinking was debunked when I realized that the first half had been played in 28 possessions, essentially at Denver’s favored speed. The full-game totals were almost exactly double that. Texas State, one of the nation’s most run-and-gun teams, beat Denver playing at the Pios’ pace.
My hunch on Wright was confirmed when the transfer from Blinn JC in Texas scored the first six of the half to push the margin to 11. The unbelievable began to come into plain view. Texas State was the better team. While Denver ate into a 13-point lead at the 13:47 mark, it did so too slowly and never looked like itself on offense or defense. At one point in the second half, the Bobcats were up to a whopping 70 percent shooting from the floor. For me, frustration set in as Wright ran amok on Denver and the Pioneers continued to single-team him until around the 10-minute mark.
Double Wright. Double front him. Do something different. -@rosslancaster
Denver only got within a couple of possessions in the final two minutes. Even then, the normally patient Pioneers’ offense couldn’t get points quickly enough to seriously challenge. On the other end, Denver let too much time come off the clock before fouling. Denver coach Joe Scott insinuated in the post-game news conference that it wasn’t in the Pioneer’s identity to make quick-strike comebacks like the one that would have been necessary for victory Thursday.
It’s a cruel, and possibly unfair, part of this time of year that a team that did so many things right for the entirety of a 2 1/2-month conference season can have it all washed away in 40 minutes by a team that did so many things the wrong way. But those are the rules of the game, and everyone comes into small conference tournaments knowing than only one team can definitively reach the NCAAs. Scott conceded as much in his remarks, saying, “We have grown a lot and won a championship, but you have to start the day like you’re 0-0.”
In the strictest sense of the word, the season might not have ended for Denver today. The Pioneers could get an NIT bid or accept a CBI or CIT bid. But, for all intents and purposes, Denver’s season — and the wonderful, theoretical shot at a national title that campaign once provided — is now over. It ends in a loss, indeed.
It ends in a loss.