Iona and Denver have a big game tonight as the Gaels and Pioneers battle for the title of “Hot Early Season Mid-Major Team”. Yeah, I don’t think that’s a real title either, but it’s going to be a really good game. I asked Brendan Loy of Mile High Mids (@MileHighMids on Twitter) to give us some insights into DU before the game tonight.
1. Denver is 6-1 with its lone loss to California of the Pac-12. Along the way the Pioneers have beaten St. Mary’s and won at Utah State. What were your expectations coming into the season?
MHM: I knew Denver had the potential to be good this year, with Rob Lewis coming back and Chris Udofia developing and some heralded freshmen coming in. But my expectations were tempered by the experience of last season, which was also hyped in advance as having the potential to be a special year (after the summer trip to Spain and so forth), only to see the Pioneers flounder to a disappointing 13-17 finish. That was partly due to injuries, but it was also evident that the team just didn’t have the pieces to be consistently good. Also, despite a promising win at Western Kentucky early on, Denver still wasn’t able to shake its road-loss bug. So when I saw the schedule, I probably would have set the over/under on the opening eight games at something like 4-4. In conference, I figured DU would be decent, but would probably not win the Sun Belt regular season title (and the NIT autobid that goes with it) because of those road woes. As for the NCAAs, anything is possible in 3 to 4 days in Hot Springs. But I guess I was expecting something in between “mediocre” and “pretty good,” while of course hoping for better.
2. Have those expectations changed now that Denver is winning more?
MHM: The fact that the Pioneers went 3-1 in their four-game stretch against Southern Miss (home), Saint Mary’s (home), Cal (road) and Utah State (road) is simply stunning to me. The win over USU is stunning above all; I realize these aren’t your older brother’s Blue Aggies, but even so, the idea that Denver — Denver! — broke USU’s 33-game home winning streak is pretty incredible (student-section protest or no student-section protest). Between February 25, 2006 and last Wednesday, Utah State was 84-2 at home, while Denver was 8-64 on the road. So for the Pioneers to dominate at the Spectrum is amazing.
That said, watching the team firsthand in the USM and SMC games, it’s clear that they’re actually quite good this year. Lewis and Udofia have created a legitimate presence inside, which was pretty much absent last season. The offense clicks more often than not, and is downright spectacular at times … as much as a Princeton offense can be called “spectacular,” I guess. The defense is better, too. So, yes, my expectations have changed, because this team, thus far, is actually fulfilling its potential. I think a Sun Belt regular season title and a gaudy record should be very much on Denver’s radar screen at this point. I can’t see an at-large bid being a reasonable possibility short of, I don’t know, beating Iona tomorrow and going 15-1 in conference play or something … which isn’t going to happen. But this team should be able to earn an NIT auto bid and position itself to have a reasonable road to the Big Dance when it arrives in Little Rock in March. And then we’ll see. Like last year, I have a Southwest Airlines plane ticket that would land me in Arkansas on the day of the Sun Belt championship game, if they get there. Maybe I’ll get to use it this time…
3. Joe Scott’s system is a very strict Princeton style. The Pioneers are one of the slowest teams in Division I in adjusted pace. Do you think Denver can control tempo in this game? If not will they be able to match Iona in a faster paced one?
MHM: Tempo is everything for Denver. Even if Iona tries to go up-tempo on its offensive possessions, the Pioneers will still slow it down when they get the ball, use up the bulk of the 35-second clock every time, pass the ball around a ton, have a bunch of false motion, etc. That’s just what they do. And if Denver is anything, it’s disciplined, so I don’t think Iona will be able to force a bunch of turnovers and change the way DU plays its offense.
4. Who are some key guys for Denver? What do they do well?
MHM: I mentioned Chris Udofia, a sophomore, and Rob Lewis, a redshirt senior who was lost to injury all last year. They’re critical because they’re the team’s inside presence, and keeping them out of severe foul trouble is important. They can score on jump shots, layups, and #OMGDUNX — Udofia especially. He had a spectacular play, which I dubbed the #OMGSTUFFDUNX, against Southern Miss, where he blocked a shot to a teammate and then got the ball passed back to him for a dunk on the other end. It was awesome. But I digress. They’ve also been doing a better job rebounding this season: Denver doesn’t typically win the rebounding battle against quality opponents, but they don’t lose it by the lopsided margins of last season. So anyway, those two are important.
Brian Stafford is the team’s leading scorer and top shooter, so it will be important for him to have a good night (though they’ve won big games already without Stafford scoring a ton — but Iona is probably the best opponent Denver has faced so far outside of Cal). Justin Coughlin has shown an ability to step up with big shots in key spots, as has the freshman Royce O’Neale. The other heralded freshman, Brett Olson, is a sharp-shooter by reputation, but hasn’t really shown it yet; if he has a breakout game against Iona, that would be huge. The Hallam brothers are also capable of making big contributions. That’s the thing about Denver this year: they’ve got quite a few weapons on offense, and it’s hard to predict who will be the key in any given game. But I’d say watch Udofia and Lewis first and foremost, and then expect somebody (or somebodies) to have the hot hand from the perimeter.
5. Care to make a prediction?
MHM: Ken Pomeroy’s tempo-free #robots give Denver a 37% chance of victory, and predict a 69-66 margin in Iona’s favor. Las Vegas has Iona as a 2.5-point favorite, with an over/under of 140.5 (so I guess they win 71.5 to 69?). I’ll be a homer and predict Denver moves to 2-0 against teams with the nickname “Gaels” with a 68-64 victory, holding Iona to its lowest point total of the season. Iona is probably the better team, but as Boromir said, one does not simply walk into Magness Arena. There is a Princeton offense there that does not sleep. And the Great Scott is ever watchful.
Thanks again to Brendan! Check him out on Twitter and Tumblr for more great stuff about Denver and West Coast mids! Also check out his preview of the game.