Denver limps into the ESPN spotlight
Denver’s season started on such a high note. The Pioneers scored huge home wins over Southern Miss and St. Mary’s (both of which have held up exceptionally well) and a breakthrough road victory at Utah State (which has not held up quite so well), ending the Aggies’ 33-game home winning streak. Just as important, the Pios passed the eye test. They looked, for the most part, genuinely excellent in the process of racking up those big early wins. And they were a Gordon Hayward-esque halfcourt near-miss against Iona away from starting 12-1.
Since then, however, the Pioneers are 5-5. They’ve gone 2-1 at home, 3-4 on the road in that stretch. And the two road wins were immediately after the New Year; Denver is 1-4 away from Magness Arena since the second week of January, with the one win coming against the league’s worst team, 2-21 Louisiana-Monroe.
At least on paper, it’s starting to feel a bit like the bad old days for Denver. Historically, this is what the Pioneers have tended to do in the Sun Belt: win at home, lose on the road. After this year’s scintillating start, there was reason to hope for something quite different in 2011-12 — perhaps not quite an undefeated run through the conference, but something like 14-2 certainly seemed reasonable. Instead, the Pios are just 6-4 in Sun Belt play, and 16-7 overall, as league-leading Middle Tennessee State (21-3 SBC, 10-0 overall) comes to Magness Arena on Saturday for a nationally televised game.
When ESPN announced on January 11 that it wanted to televise the DU-MTSU game, the first ever Magness basketball broadcast by the Worldwide Leader, the contest looked like a clash of mid-major titans. Denver was 13-3 overall, 3-1 in the Sun Belt (with what felt like a one-time fluky home loss to a bad Arkansas-Little Rock), and ranked #17 in the College Insider Mid-Major Top 25. Middle Tennessee was 15-2, 4-0, and ranked #7 in that poll. Since then, MTSU has only gotten better, while Denver has gone in the opposite direction. Indeed, the Pioneers limp into the game on a two-game losing streak, and having lost 3 out of 4. First came the buzzer-beater heartbreak at North Texas; then the second half of an inexplicable sweep by UALR; and then last night’s referee-assisted gut-wrencher in Lafayette.
Obviously, a win over Middle Tennessee could give Denver a boost, and perhaps help them turn things around. Including Saturday’s game, four of the Pios’ last six are at home — and they might well need to go 6-0, or at least 5-1, to even salvage second place in the SBC West and a potential #3 seed in the Sun Belt tournament (assuming they also finish ahead of the second-place team in the East, likely Florida Atlantic). The #3 seed is important because it keeps MTSU on the opposite side of the bracket. With a loss, Denver would be virtually eliminated from the race for the SBC West title, and favorable seeding would become more and more difficult to achieve as well.
Here’s hoping Saturday is the day DU returns to early-season form, and we end up looking back on this 5-5 stretch as a sort of midseason slump in between non-conference success and postseason glory.