Crucial home stretch looms for Pioneers, Bears
Denver and Northern Colorado both have a great deal to play for as their respective conference schedules enter the home stretch.
I’ll start with Northern Colorado, which unlike Denver, isn’t playing for regular-season accolades or for tournament seeding position, but for basic postseason survival. The Bears are currently in a four-way tie for fifth place in the Big Sky, and are one of seven teams — that’s almost two-thirds of the conference — within a single game of one another (in the loss column), from 3rd place down to 9th place. Two of those seven teams in the standings logjam will be left out of the postseason entirely, as only the top 7 teams qualify for the conference tournament. So this is an extremely volatile situation.
As I’ve said before, UNC’s schedule sets up quite well for them, particularly compared to the schedules of the other teams in the logjam. If the Bears “take care of business” in their home games against North Dakota on Wednesday and against Southern Utah on March 7 (UNC’s finale), they’ll finish no worse than 9-11, even if they lose at Eastern Washington and at Portland State on February 28 and March 2. A 9-11 record would probably be enough to get the Bears into the conference tourney, as Eastern Washington and Northern Arizona will probably struggle to get to 9-11, given their far tougher schedules down the stretch. Of course, a road split against EWU/PSU would make things a lot easier for the Bears — and, conversely, a home loss to UND or SUU would make things a whole lot dicier. UNC is in decent position, but has basically no margin for error in Greeley.
Denver, meanwhile, is 13-2 in WAC play — having completed its road schedule with a 7-2 mark in the league — and sits alone in second place after New Mexico State lost at Utah State on Saturday. The Pios now take a two-week break from conference play, with a non-conference BracketBusters showdown at Northern Iowa on Saturday their only remaining game in February.
Then comes the critical three-game homestand that will determine Denver’s regular-season fate: March 2 vs. New Mexico State, March 7 vs. Texas-Arlington, and March 9 vs. Louisiana Tech.
Even if Denver beats NMSU and UTA, the finale against LaTech won’t mean much unless the Bulldogs (14-0 in WAC play) lose at least once beforehand. Louisiana Tech, which is not participating in BracketBusters (but does play NAIA team Central Baptist on Wedensday), hosts Utah State on February 28 and San Jose State on March 2, then visits New Mexico State on March 7 and Denver on March 9.
If LaTech loses one of its three league games before visiting Magness Arena, and DU beats NMSU and UTA, a Pioneers win on March 9 would create a two-way tie atop the conference standings. Unfortunately for Denver, Louisiana Tech would likely win the tiebreaker — and get the conference tourney #1 seed and NIT auto-bid — because it has the superior RPI, currently #46 to Denver’s #93. Obviously that gap would narrow in this scenario, but probably not enough. (Playing an NAIA foe doesn’t “count” at all for RPI purposes.)
Thus, if Denver wants the #1 seed and NIT autobid, it must win out and hope Louisiana Tech loses twice in its next three games — most likely to Utah State and NMSU. (San Jose State is 3-11 in the WAC, ranked in the 300s by KenPom, and unlikely to challenge LaTech in Ruston.) But even a single loss by LaTech, most likely against NMSU in Las Cruces, would at least give Denver a shot at a co-championship and a WAC champion banner in the Pios’ only year in the league.
Also, regardless of what LaTech does, winning out and finishing 21-8 overall (including a win at Northern Iowa) and 16-2 in the WAC would give Denver a pretty strong argument for an NIT at-large bid, if DU were to lose in the WAC tourney in Vegas.
In terms of conference seeding implications, it’s pretty simple. Both the #1 and #2 seeds will face a quarterfinal game against the winner of an opening-round game featuring some combination of San Jose State, Texas State, UTSA and Seattle. Those teams are all pretty bad, so seeding doesn’t make too much of a difference there. (The #3 seed will likely face a rested Idaho in the quarterfinals, which is a bit more of a challenge; Idaho gave LaTech a scare Saturday in Moscow. DU could potentially fall to the #3 seed if they lose to NMSU on March 2.)
Then, assuming the favorites win their quarterfinal games, the #1 seed will most likely face the winner of Utah State and Texas-Arlington (it’s not clear who will be the #4 and who will be the #5, but those teams appear headed, in whichever order, to the 4-5 game — though there’s still a chance that one of them could snag the #3 and drop NMSU into the 4-5 game), while the #2 seed will face the #3 seed. As a practical matter for Denver, this probably means the difference between playing New Mexico State in the semifinals and LaTech in the final, versus playing USU/UTA in the semis and the LaTech/NMSU winner in the final. Thus far, LaTech, NMSU and Denver have looked like the class of the league, so that would seem to make the #1 seed a big advantage (only one game against the WAC’s top tier, instead of two). But USU seems to be improving, and if they also get healthier by tourney time, a #4 or #5-seeded Blue Aggies squad could be just as dangerous as NMSU. So seeding might not make a huge difference in that regard.