"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." --Boromir of Gondor (paraphrased)
For the Denver Pioneers, 2010-11 was supposed to be a dream season. Sure, they had lost top scorer Nate Rohnert to graduation, but that was easy to rationalize away. They had a lot of talent coming back, including a lot of scoring potential. The team had jelled during a summer trip to Spain, and expectations were high. Then reality hit, first in the form of a three-day tournament at Oregon in which DU went 0-3, followed by a series of additional early season struggles that dropped the Pioneers to 2-9 before you could say "Princeton offense." Turns out Rohnert wasn't so easy to replace after all.
Things seems to turn around as Sun Belt play started, and Denver rattled off an 8-game winning streak -- but then the injury bug struck, the team's weaknesses were exposed again, and the Pioneers stumbled to a 13-17 final record. It ended with a loss, as it always does, in the first round of the Sun Belt tournament, at the hands of a bad Florida International team. Arkansas-Little Rock's run to the championship of a completely wide open Sun Belt Tournament only made the #sadz more acute. "That could have been us," I thought.
"Us." That's a loaded word in sports fandom, still less sports journalism. But I, too, had a dream in 2010-11. Inspired by the Mid-Majority, and specifically by Season 6's "emotional investment" concept, I decide to adopt Denver (in November rather than March) as "my" mid-major team, notwithstanding my checkered history as a USC and Notre Dame alum with a random affinity for Gonzaga. I started a DU-centric blog called Pioneer Pulse, obtained press credentials from Denver's wonderful SID staff, and started attending, blogging and tweeting games. Then a different kind of reality hit: my wife got pregnant with our third child, and her first trimester was rough. I was forced to skip a bunch of games, including Denver's lone Game! Of! The! Night!, and ultimately had to scale back the blog's ambitions. It ended in, not in a loss exactly, but in frustration and unmet ambitions for my big mid-major blog project.
Flash forward to 2011-12. At the beginning, each team has a chance -- and expectations are once again high for Denver. Moreover, this time the optimism seems more objectively justified. The team lost almost no one to graduation, gained back a inside force they missed last year (injured all season) in redshirt senior Rob Lewis, and added key pieces in the form of highly touted freshmen Brett Olsen and Royce O'Neale. The first two games did nothing to quell those high hopes, as Denver beat Portland State at home and Texas A&M-Corpus Christi on the road to start 2-0.
Meanwhile, for my part, I'm credentialed at DU again (and Northern Colorado too!), but have scaled back my ambitions: with a four-month-old at home, I know I'll only be able to make a few games in person. Still, I hope to make some kind of contribution to the TMM milieu with my new site, Mile High Mids, and of course 800GP writeups.
I initially said "I Wish I Could, But I Will Not" to Denver's second home game of the year, against Southern Miss, believing that I should save up those wifely "sure, honey, you can attend a game while I'm sleep-deprived and overwhelmed by our 3 children under age 4" credits for other, bigger games like Saint Mary's and the Colorado Mid-Major State Championship at Northern Colorado. But then the season started, I got excited, Denver won its first two, and I couldn't resist the potential Red Line Upset dangling there in front of me. So I proposed a compromise to Becky: I'd come home from work, put our three daughters to bed -- their bedtime is roughly 7:00, the same time as tipoff -- and then I'd drive over to DU, in time for the second half. She okayed the plan, and I changed my answer to "I Will."
So it was that I blustered onto press row Thursday night, during halftime of a game Denver was winning, 30-22. I had listened to the radio broadcast en route, and things sounded promising. Denver was getting some rebounds, playing dynamically on offense, and keeping Southern Miss on its heels. A Red Line Upset -- Denver's first since 2009, and first over a non-Front Range team since 2005 -- was no longer a pipe dream; it was a real possibility.
DU Bally (a.k.a. Denver Pioneer Ballz) and Mile High Bally (a.k.a. #tigerballz) took their spots along press row, between Denver's official liveblogger and its radio voice Mitch Hyder on the left, and Southern Miss's rent-a-radio-guy on the right. It was our first time sitting on the sideline press row; last year we were relegated to the portable table behind the baseline, but there wasn't enough room there tonight. Oh well. Please don't throw me into that briar patch!
Our closeness to the action was brought home to me when one of the referees, noticing my computer, asked me just before the second half started if I knew the score of the Broncos game. (That's an American-Style Football team, for you TMM purists.) I looked it up and told him it was 3-3 at halftime. He let out a disgusted sigh and made a crack about it being a "real offensive game." I said it sounded "like an SEC game." He chuckled. His amusement didn't stop him from calling a bunch of b.s. fouls against Denver, but I digress. (Later, long after the DU game was over, a huge cheer went up from the concession area, as dozens of folks who had gathered around a TV there saw Tim Tebow lead the Broncos to another improbable victory. Or, as @mightejoe put in on Twitter, "Denver rockin' with news that DU beats So. Miss and something about some kid named tebow." Heh. Anyway, I've now said more about football than should ever be uttered here in a non-#LastMan context, so... back to Our Game.)
From our awesome seats, we witnessed a pretty awesome show, a tightly contested battle between Conference USA's Golden Eagles and the Sun Belt's Pioneers. Denver, of course, is a massive geographic misfit in the SBC; hence its bolting for the WAC next year, assuming that league still exists. Denver is also a budgetary misfit: it's the Sun Belt's highest-budget program by far, and actually has higher athletic and men's basketball revenues than Southern Miss. But the Red Line is a conference-by-conference calculation, not school-by-school, so far be it for me to downplay an RLU by my team.
Besides, Southern Miss definitely looked the part of a major-conference squad: a bunch of plainly talented, athletic players... who repeatedly displayed a distressing lack of discipline. I can't count how many times I saw a USM player drive into the paint and then throw up a shot that was totally wild, sometimes comically so, flying 15 or 20 feet into the air. Like this, except uglier in many cases:
The goal, I guess, was to draw fouls, but Joe Scott's Pioneers are nothing if not disciplined, and they usually didn't take the bait. What's more, Denver overcame its typical rebounding struggles and actually got on the glass quite a bit, hauling in 29 defensive rebounds (to Southern Miss's 22). USM did manage 10 offensive rebounds (to Denver's 3), but it wasn't enough to vindicate their apparent strategy of wildly throwing the ball up in the general vicinity of the rim and hoping for either a second chance or a foul.
Denver's offense, meanwhile, showed flashes of brilliance that were rarities last season. Senior co-captain Brian Stafford, named Sun Belt Player of the Week after scoring 32 and 25 points in Denver's first two games, was virtually nonexistent on offense, scoring just 3 points and fouling out with 4:38 left, but his teammates picked up the slack and then some. Fellow senior co-captain Rob Lewis was brilliant, reminding everyone why Denver missed him so much last year, as was sophomore Chris Udofia. Denver's aggressiveness and ability to get points inside -- against a bigger, more athletic team -- was a welcome surprise, and one of the big stories of the game. The Pios were "only" 4-for-10 from #superhoop range, doing more of their scoring than usual from 2-point land and the free-throw line.
Freshman Royce O'Neale provided a critical spark in the first half (or at least it sounded that way on the radio during my drive over), ending up with 11 points, the most in his short career. Meanwhile, Udofia and Lewis led the way with 23 and 15 points, respectively, including a number of beautiful layups resulting from excellent, well-executed offensive sets, like this:
Udofia also produced the unquestioned play of the game, and probably of Denver's young season, when he blocked a shot (one of at least 5 blocks on the night -- possibly more, due to a scorekeeping technological snafu), then fielded a fast-break pass from Brett Olson (who had retrieved the ball after the block) and slammed it home for 2 points on the other end. As I tweetedimmediatelyafterward: "OMG OMG OMG ... CHRIS UDOFIA WITH THE #OMGSTUFFZ FOLLOWED IMMEDIATELY BY THE #OMGDUNX that was awesome ... Udofia block, fast break, gets ball back, dunks it. I present to the @midmajority / @800GP community a new term... the #OMGSTUFFDUNX!"
As I type this, Denver's SID staff are in the process of uploading a video clip of the #OMGSTUFFDUNX to ESPN, trying to get it on SportsCenter. I hope they succeed. It was awesome.
Denver never trailed in the second half, though USM repeatedly pulled within low single digits. Indeed, Denver's lead was cut to 2 by the free throws after Stafford's fifth foul. But the Pioneers kept answering, and in the end, put the game away with quality defense, patient offense and all-around good execution.
The victory was effectively sealed on a Pioneers offensive possession that started with 55 seconds to go, Denver up 5. Southern Miss chose not to foul, but tried instead to pressure the Pioneers into a turnover. Denver patiently played keep-away, but the signature moment came with 15 on the shot clock, when freshman O'Neale fielded a pass just outside the three-point line, and found himself staring at a completely empty path to the basket. It was an Ali Farokhmanesh moment, and you could tell he was sorely tempted to try for the "dagger" superhoop. (He was 2-for-4 from three-point land on the night.) But he literally shook his head no, as if settling the debate between the angel and devil on his shoulder, and instead passed the ball to Travis Hallam. Seconds later, Lewis got open under the basket, Hallam passed it to him for an easy layup with 5 on the shot clock, and it was a 57-50 game with 25 seconds left. Game, set, match, Red Line Upset.
Last year, it took Denver twelve games to earn its third win. This year, they did it in three -- and scored a Red Line Upset along the way. As I detailed on Mile High Mids earlier today, it's Denver's first RLU since November 25, 2009, when they beat Wyoming 80-77 here at Magness Arena. It's also their first RLU over a non-Front Range team (i.e., not Colorado State, Wyoming or Air Force) since November 19, 2005, when they won 44-30 in a neutral-site game -- at the dearly-departed Top of the World Classic in Fairbanks -- over... Southern Miss.
The Pioneers have four more RLU chances this regular season: November 26 at Cal, December 17 vs. Boise State, December 19 vs. Wyoming, and January 11
at Colorado State. The non-conference schedule is tough, and Denver undoubtedly won't be undefeated for much longer -- maybe not even for another game, with St. Mary's coming to town next. But for now, there are high hopes for a special basketball season at this hockey school. (As I write this, they are in the process of dismantling the basketball court and setting up the arena for tomorrow's hockey game against Nebraska-Omaha.)
For now, anything seems possible. And who knows, maybe it is.
SOUTHERN MISSISSIPPI 1-1 (0-0) -- L. Page 4-9 2-3 11; A. Johnson 5-9 2-3 12; M. Bolden 4-12 3-3 11; N. Watson 2-10 5-6 11; R. McGill 0-3 0-2 0; J. Mills 1-6 0-0 2; T. Pelham 2-4 0-0 4; K. DeWitt 0-1 1-2 1; C. Jenkins 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 18-54 13-19 52. DENVER 3-0 (0-0) -- C. Udofia 7-10 6-9 21; B. Olson 1-5 0-0 2; C. Hallam 3-4 1-2 7; B. Stafford 1-8 1-1 3; R. O'Neale 3-5 3-4 11; R. Lewis 4-6 6-6 15; T. Hallam 0-2 0-0 0; B. Foeman 0-0 0-0 0; J. Coughlin 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 19-40 17-22 59.
Three-point goals: USM 3-12 (A. Johnson 0-2; M. Bolden 0-2; N. Watson 2-4; L. Page 1-4), DEN 4-10 (R. Lewis 1-2; B. Stafford 0-1; C. Udofia 1-1; R. O'Neale 2-4; B. Olson 0-2); Rebounds: USM 30 (M. Bolden 8), DEN 26 (R. O'Neale 6); Assists: USM 3 (A. Johnson 2), DEN 11 (T. Hallam 3); Total Fouls -- USM 21, DEN 19; Fouled Out: USM-N. Watson; DEN-B. Stafford.