After an exhilarating start, Denver hosts rising Iona
As you may have noticed, I’ve been mostly out of bloggy commission the last couple of weeks, for personal reasons unrelated to basketball. That’s a shame, because they’ve been perhaps the most monumental couple of weeks in recent Denver Pioneers men’s basketball history. The Pios followed up their Red Line Upset of Southern Miss and their home stunner over Saint Mary’s with a shocking and dominating victory over Utah State in Logan, UT, 67-54, ending the Blue Aggies’ 33-game home winning streak; and an as-expected 62-46 rout of Texas Southern. Yes, there was an 80-59 loss at Pac-12 contender Cal mixed in there, but even so, Denver is now 6-1, off to its best Division I start since 1942. “It’s an exciting time to be a Pioneer,” writes the SID blog, and justifiably so.
What’s more, the Pioneers are getting national attention for their hot start. First, on Friday, Yahoo’s college basketball blog, The Dagger, featured Denver in a nice feature by Jeff Eisenberg about how the Pios have “quietly emerged as a team to watch.” Then yesterday, Denver was, for a while, the top story on ESPN.com’s college basketball page (!), with top billing in Myron Medcalf’s Mid-Major Report.
What’s more, although Denver strangely remains stuck at #26 (i.e., first in “others receiving votes”) in the CollegeInsider.com Mid-Major Top 25 for the second straight week despite the win at Utah State, the Pioneers are ranked #7 in ESPN’s “Mid-Major Power 15” at the bottom of Medcalf’s report.
Oh, and you know who’s #6? Iona — the very team Denver faces tonight.
Unlike Denver, the Iona College Gaels (the second “Gaels” team DU has faced at Magness Arena this season) have been hyped all season a mid-major contender to watch. Thus far, they’ve lived up to the hype. Since a season-opening loss to Purdue, Iona has won six straight games, scoring 1.16 points per possession and holding opponents to 0.93 PPP in that stretch. In addition to their ESPN mid-major ranking of #6, the Gaels are #3 in the aforementioned CollegeInsider poll, and Ken Pomeroy’s tempo-free robots say they’re the #32 team in the nation (Denver is #105). Outside of Cal, this is probably the best team Denver has faced all season. So tonight is a real opportunity for the Pioneers to make a statement that their early start is no fluke, and the recent burst of national attention is well-deserved.
Here’s some of what College Basketball Prospectus wrote about Iona in the preseason:
Iona in 2011 passed the paper test and the eye test with flying colors. Blessed with one-time Big East commit Michael Glover down low and über-point guard Scott Machado running the show, the Gaels could look unstoppable. …
At first glance, head coach Tim Cluess didn’t lose much leading up to his second season … [and he] made the MAAC’s biggest offseason personnel splash by adding Arizona transfer Lamont “MoMo” Jones, a New York City native who’ll be eligible this season with the help of an NCAA hardship waiver. … Jones can run the point but is more a shooter than a distributor, which should make him a good fit next to Machado, who’s very much a traditional point guard. …
With three of mid-majordom’s top players in Glover, Jones and Machado, two above average contributors in Jenkins and Smyth and a host of promising rotation players, Iona appears poised to repeat last season’s success.
A big key to the game will be whether Denver can control the pace, as implied by this preseason note from NYC basketball blogger John Templon:
What happens when a team slows the Gaels down? – … In every loss during league play Iona was held below its average season pace. That includes three particularly slow losses to Siena (64 possessions, 74-67), Fairfield (63 possessions, 75-71) and St. Peter’s (63 possessions, 62-57).
The [Fairfield] one is particularly worrisome. The Stags and Gaels will compete for the conference championship and…[Fairfield has] ability to slow the tempo of the game down with Sydney Johnson’s version of the Princeton Offense. How Iona prepares for such a scenario could make or break its season.
Denver, of course, also runs a version of the Princeton offense, and is one of the slowest-paced teams in the country. Can Iona win at DU’s pace? Or, can Iona harass Denver enough on defense to alter the pace in its favor? On the latter question, here’s an early breakdown of Iona’s defense. We shall see. Denver is nothing if not disciplined, so hopefully they can avoid excessive turnovers and play their game on offense. They’ll also need to keep Udofia and Lewis out of excessive foul trouble. Another factor is how the altitude will affect Iona, and whether that alone might slow the Gaels down a bit, which would be to Denver’s benefit.
Iona will undoubtedly have a good game plan, and is probably the better team overall. But given the way they’ve been playing so far, and given that the game is at Magness Arena, I like Denver’s chances tonight. Vegas has the Gaels as a 2 1/2 point favorite. I may be a homer, but I’ll go with Denver to win by 4, with a final score in the mid-60s.
I plan to be at the game, incidentally — although, as with the St. Mary’s game, I’ll be arriving around halftime. Gotta put the girls to bed first, then head over to the arena. My liveblog will be here, when the time comes.
P.S. Here’s a preview of the game from College Hoops Net:
Joe Scott’s Denver Pioneers have gotten off to a very good start, but they’re going to face a serious test at home as the Iona Gaels visit. The arrival of Mike Glover should be a good measuring stick for DU’s Chris Udofia, a young player with the athletic ability to be an All-Sun Belt caliber player in the very near future. The Gaels also boast the nation’s leading assist man in Scott Machado, but the question is whether or not Tim Cluess’ team can play as fast as they want in the high altitude.
I would just note that if Udofia is going to be “an All-Sun Belt caliber player in the very near future,” it better be really near, as in this season. Otherwise he’ll be trying to be an all-WAC caliber player. :)