Huge week looms for Denver, UNC
The Denver Pioneers (15-8 overall, 11-2 in league play) and Northern Colorado Bears (7-15, 5-9) have very different goals as the regular season winds down. DU, having won 11 of 12 since a 4-7 start, is looking for a regular-season title and a conference-tourney #1 seed in its first and last WAC season. UNC, meanwhile, is trying to scratch and claw its way into the top 7 of the 11-team Big Sky, in order to qualify for the league tournament and extend its season by at least one more game.
Despite those differences, both teams have a huge week ahead in pursuit of their respective goals.
Denver has its final road trip of the season, at Utah State Thursday and at San Jose State Saturday, and likely must pull off the sweep in order to stay alive for a conference title. Denver’s critical late-season Saturday home dates with New Mexico State (March 2) and Louisiana Tech (March 9) will lose a lot of their luster if Denver can’t win two on the road this week.
The USU game looks pretty evenly matched: Denver is considered a 59% favorite to win on the road at the Spectrum, according to Ken Pomeroy. Winning at SJSU should, on paper, be easier: Denver is a 92% favorite in that one. Regardless, the Pios really need both wins, or their quest for a #1 seed and conference title is almost certainly over.
Meanwhile, Denver — or at least its fans — will also be doing some scoreboard-watching. The Pios control their own destiny against New Mexico State (17-8, 11-2), with whom they are currently tied for second place in the WAC, but they do not control their destiny against league-leading Louisiana Tech (21-3, 12-0). LaTech travels to Seattle on Thursday and Idaho on Saturday, and it would be extremely helpful to DU if the Bulldogs would lose at least one of those games (Idaho being the more likely prospect). If LaTech sweeps the weekend, the Bulldogs will be a home sweep away (vs. USU and SJSU) from making a tie for first place Denver’s best-case scenario — and LaTech would likely win the tiebreaker due to RPI if that happens. DU, as league co-champ at 16-2, would get a WAC championship banner, but not a #1 seed or an automatic NIT bid.
As for Northern Colorado, the Bears immeasurably improved their chances of snagging a top 7 spot in the Big Sky by pulling off a critical road win over Montana State on Saturday. I was on date night with my wife Saturday, and when I got a push notification announcing the result, I exclaimed, “OH, WOW!” — to her slight chagrin, I fear. :) Anyway, the win was crucial because, although UNC is currently in a two-way tie for 8th place, one game out of 7th, a deeper look at the competing teams’ remaining schedules suggests that the Bears are arguably in the driver’s seat for the #7 seed right now. Basically, if everybody wins the games they “should” win, and loses the games they “should” lose, UNC will get into the league tournament.
However, to maintain that position, the Bears absolutely must defeat Northern Arizona — the team currently occupying that #7 spot — at Butler-Hancock Pavilion in Greeley on Thursday. As huge as the win in Bozeman was, a loss to NAU in Greeley on Thursday would be even more huge, in a bad way. And then, if UNC wants to be able to get into the top 7 without needing road wins later, they need to beat Sacramento State on Saturday in Greeley as well.
Scoreboard-watching is trickier in the Big Sky because, with the relevant teams so tightly bunched, it’s hard to know for sure who UNC will end up competing against for the #7 spot. Here’s how the standings look right now:
1. Montana 14-0
2. Weber State 11-2
3. Southern Utah 8-6
4(t). Sacramento State 7-7
4(t). North Dakota 7-7
4(t). Montana State 7-7
7. Northern Arizona 6-8
8(t). Northern Colorado 5-9
8(t). Eastern Washington 5-9
10. Idaho State 3-10
11. Portland State 3-11
However, with NAU having a very tough stretch run (4 road games and 2 home games, with one of the home games against Weber State), I have a hunch that they will plummet — assuming, again, that UNC beats NAU on Thursday — and Eastern Washington, with whom UNC is currently tied for 8th place, will end up being the Bears’ primary competition for the #7 seed. The goal for UNC should be to get in a position where, even if they lose at EWU on February 28, they can still finish ahead of the Eagles for the #7 spot. To that end, they should probably root for Southern Utah to beat EWU in Cheney on Saturday.
Also, if you really dig into the scenarios, it appears plausible that a UNC-EWU tiebreaker, assuming the Eagles do beat the Bears in Cheney (meaning they would have split the season series against each other), would be broken by whether North Dakota or Northern Arizona is higher in the final standings. UNC wants North Dakota to be higher; EWU wants Northern Arizona to be higher. (Just trust me on this one.) It’s not guaranteed to work out that way, but again, if everybody wins and loses when they “should,” that’s how it would go (I think). So, root for North Dakota over Sacramento State Thursday and, even morseo, over NAU Saturday.