Denver wins at Northern Iowa, improves profile
Denver scored a huge BracketBusters win at Northern Iowa, 63-57 on Saturday, the Pioneers’ first RPI Top 100 win of the season — and on the home court of a Top 3 Missouri Valley Conference team, no less. It was probably the Pios’ most impressive road win under Joe Scott.
Although it was a non-conference game with no direct impact on the WAC race, the win accomplished at least three important things:
- Went a long way toward validating the young Pioneers’ evident improvement on the court since their 1-5 start, showing that their 17-3 record since then (and 14-1 since December 29) isn’t solely the product of a weak WAC schedule.
- Gave Denver’s NCAA resume a big boost — not for potential at-large inclusion, a not-gonna-happen pipe dream that ESPN3’s commentator absurdly floated late in the game, but for potential seeding if the Pioneers win the WAC tournament. A seed of #14 or better, so important to securing a reasonable chance of a first-round upset, is much more likely now.
- Gave Denver’s NIT resume a big boost. The Pios are now in John Templon’s projected NIT field, and can solidify that position by finishing strong in WAC play. Recalling that Denver was snubbed last year, this is an important fallback if Denver fails to win the WAC tourney and fails to get the NIT auto-bid that would come with earning the #1 seed in the WAC (which would require them to win out and, probably, Louisiana Tech to lose two of their next three games before arriving at Magness on March 9 — more on that below).
The victory also lent Denver a bit of national cred in an “ESPN Family of Networks” game against an opponent that people have heard of. (Farokhmanesh, anyone?) And it surely gave DU’s players a jolt of confidence heading into the home stretch of WAC play.
Ah, the home stretch. Emphasis on “home” — all of Denver’s final trio of regular-season games are at Magness Arena, which is huge, and all are against teams in the top tier of the conference. New Mexico State, currently in 3rd (behind second-place Denver), visits Saturday. Then UT-Arlington, tied with Utah State for 4th, visits next Thursday. And finally, the big one, against unbeaten-in-league-play Louisiana Tech next Saturday, March 9.
If the Bulldogs are still undefeated in the conference when they roll into town, that game won’t be quite as huge, since LaTech will have clinched the WAC title and #1 seed already, in that scenario. But if LaTech loses at least one of its next three — vs. Utah State Thursday, vs. San Jose State Saturday, and at New Mexico State next Thursday — and if Denver beats NMSU and UTA, then Denver will be playing for at least a share of the conference championship in its first and last year in the WAC. (Co-champions get a banner too.)
I’ve said before that LaTech probably needs to lose twice before March 9 (most likely to USU and NMSU) for DU to have a shot at the #1 seed, because the tiebreaker would come down to RPI, and LaTech is way ahead in that department (#52 to #76). I did some further checking, and it appears that I’m right: assuming Louisiana Tech and Denver both finish 16-2 in the WAC (meaning LaTech goes 2-2 down the stretch, and Denver goes 3-0), rpi-forecast.com projects LaTech to have an RPI of #45, and Denver #56. So Denver fans should be rooting very, very hard for Utah State on Thursday, and then of course NMSU next Thursday, if they want a shot at that #1 seed. (San Jose State ain’t winning in Ruston.)
There’s another reason to root for Utah State, actually, beyond the LaTech angle. Denver is now 1-7 against the all-important RPI Top 100, up from 0-7 thanks to the win over Northern Iowa. But that 1-7 could become 7-7 by the time Denver, hypothetically, cuts down the nets in Las Vegas, if things break just right, namely:
- Denver wins out, earning RPI Top 100 wins over New Mexico State and Louisiana Tech to close the regular season.
- Denver beats New Mexico State again in the WAC semifinals, and beats Louisiana Tech (or, perhaps, Utah State after the Blue Aggies upset the Bulldogs in the semis) in the championship game.
- Louisiana Tech and Northern Iowa stay in the RPI Top 100. This appears highly likely, according to rpi-forecast.com.
- New Mexico State stays in the RPI Top 100 despite losing twice to Denver and, possibly, once to Louisiana Tech. According to rpi-forecast.com’s projections, this is likely. NMSU is #69 right now, and is unlikely to fall out of the Top 100 unless it totally crashes and burns, losing 3 straight (to Denver, LaTech and Texas-Arlington) and then crashing out of the WAC tournament in, most likely, the 4/5 game.
- Utah State, which Denver already beat twice, moves into the RPI Top 100. The Aggies are currently #105, after getting a big boost from their BracketBusters win over Illinois State. Can they finish in the Top 100? The projections at rpi-forecast.com suggest it’s going to be really close, if all goes according to plan. Assuming USU loses to LaTech, then wins out against the three Texas schools (only the game at Texas-Arlington should be particularly challenging), the 4/5 rubber match against UTA in Vegas could well determine whether the Aggies finish in the high 90s or low 100s. Obviously, though, if USU wins at LaTech on Thursday, that would give them a huge leg up in the battle to crack the Top 100.
So, to review, Denver can improve from 1-7 to 7-7 vs. the RPI Top 100 by winning out (including in Vegas), rooting against WAC tourney upsets that would see them playing a surprise bad team in the semis or finals, and having New Mexico State stay in the Top 100 (likely), and Utah State get into the Top 100 (plausible).
Why does this matter? Because a Denver team that’s 7-7 vs. the RPI Top 100, not to mention 24-8 overall and 20-1 since December 29, would, it seems to me, have a really good shot at getting into one of those 4/5/12/13 NCAA tournament pods that can, depending on matchups, serve as really nice jumping off points for a Cinderella Sweet 16 run. (Keep in mind, there’s been a consensus that there’s a significant dropoff this year between the #3 and #4 seed lines. So getting a #13 seed instead of a #14 would be huge.)
One game at a time, of course. But it starts Thursday with Utah State in Ruston, Louisiana. GO BLUE AGGIES!!! I BELIEVE THAT YOU WILL WIN!!! :)
P.S. I recently discovered that I have one other, rather unusual personal reason why I’d like to see Denver get the #1 seed in the WAC — which, again, would require Louisiana Tech to lose to USU and NMSU (or SJSU, but #cmonson), and then to Denver.
The WAC semifinals are on Friday, March 15. Also that evening, the Notre Dame Glee Club (of “Rudy” background music fame) will perform in Denver. Despite having attended Notre Dame for three years, I never actually went to see the Glee Club perform. Now that I’m all filled with Domer nostalgia, though, I’d really like to. But their concert is at 7:00 PM — exactly the same time as 2 vs. 3 semifinal in the WAC tourney. If Denver’s in that game, I’m not going to miss the entire thing for a concert, even one I very much want to attend. However, if Denver gets the #1 seed, they can earn their way into the 1 vs. 4 semifinal, which is scheduled to tip off at 9:30 PM — exactly the time the Glee Club concert is expected to get out. So I could watch the Glee Club, missing the LaTech-NMSU semi in the process, then leave the concert and tune in for the late DU-USU semi…perhaps going to a game watch on campus??