The moment I drove down the exit ramp from I-25 and approached the merge with University Boulevard about 25 minutes before Denver and Arkansas State were set to tip off Thursday night, it became clear something was different this night.
There was...traffic. Lots of it. Usually I just zoom through that merge, but this time I had to stop and wait, and practice my yielding skills. Then, as I drove down University and neared Buchtel Boulevard, it got even more congested. Crossing Buchtel, heading toward DU parking, I briefly became that stranded jerk who goes through the light when it's green, only to find the traffic immediately ahead is at a complete standstill, and suddenly I'm stuck "blocking the box" after the light turns red. I made this elementary error because I am simply not trained to expect a full-on traffic jam at University and Buchtel. It just doesn't happen -- at least not for basketball.
"Surely this can't all be for the game," I thought to myself as I snuck ahead into a turn lane, so as to stop blocking traffic. I figured perhaps there was some other event happening nearby as well.
But when I made the first right onto Jewell Avenue, I was greeted with further confirmation that the Ritchie Center, home of Magness Arena, was indeed the hub of all this activity. The parking attendant was turning people away: the lot was full. When I showed him my media pass, he said, "Oh -- press? Yikes. Well, I'll open the gate for you and you can check; maybe you can find something. I wouldn't want you to be late." Sure enough, I found the very last spot in the lot, wedged between two large, poorly parked trucks.
"If the traffic and parking situation are any indication, there must be an abnormally huge crowd here for @DU_MHoops tonight," I tweeted.
As I stepped out of my car, I saw people streaming toward Magness -- bustling along the Buchtel Boulevard sidewalk, converging from all directions toward the steps up to the arena. There was an electricity in the air, or at least it felt that way in my head, as this event that I've been treating as a fun, worthwhile activity for the last two years -- University of Denver basketball -- suddenly appeared to be a real destination for lots of people.
I rounded the bend to walk toward will-call. I would not actually be sitting with the working press tonight: I had free tickets to an attorney networking event sponsored by the Colorado Bar Association's Young Lawyers Division and the DU Law School's Student Bar Association, and so tonight I would be wearing my Serious Lawyer Hat instead of my Fake Journalist Hat. ("Didn't know that hat fit you," basketball SID Mike Kennedy quipped when I told him this.) As a result, for the first time this season, I entered the arena through the public entrance instead of the press entrance.
The concourse area was crowded and loud, with a real vibe of pregame excitement. It felt more like the one hockey game I attended at DU last year, against #1-ranked Boston College, than any basketball game I'd been to at Magness before. Denver, as you may know, is fundamentally a "hockey school" -- a somewhat rare phenomenon among schools competing in Our Game. A lot of hockey powers are either "football schools" (Michigan, Wisconsin) or schools without Division I basketball (Lake Superior State, Michigan Tech). Denver, by contrast, has no football team, but its Division I basketball program toils in the shadow of DU hockey. The hockey Pioneers are tied for second all-time, behind Michigan, with seven NCAA ice hockey championships, including recent titles in 2004 and 2005. They are consistently ranked highly in the polls, and home games draw large, enthusiastic, hockey-savvy crowds. Student energy is overwhelmingly geared toward hockey, and with the seasons overlapping, basketball struggles to get even a sliver of the school's attention.
But, as Ghân-buri-Ghân says, "wind is changing." Hockey will always be king at Magness Arena, but Thursday was the first time it has felt like Joe Scott's team was at least in the same league as George Gwozdecky's squad in terms of crowd support and excitement. That perhaps partly due to the air of anticipation, as all over the arena, you couldn't help but see the signs advertising Denver's *next* home game: Saturday, February 4, against Middle Tennessee State on ESPN2.
MTSU, of course, has been getting a ton of national buzz for its excellent season, as has Denver, so this will unquestionably be the Sun Belt game of the year. It will also be the Worldwide Leader's first ever visit to Magness Arena for a basketball game, and DU is buzzing about it.
I spoke with SID Kennedy, and also with Joey Leon, a DU senior and co-chair of the student spirit committee, about their plans to promote the MTSU game. Not everything is public yet, and some details are still being worked out, but what's clear is that both the Athletic Department and student leaders intend to pull out all the stops in trying to get a big, boisterous crowd out for the game. In addition to the appearance, as mentioned on the signs, by reality TV runner-up and hip-hop a capella group Urban Method, there will be a variety of pre-game festivities planned, starting around noon on Driscoll Green.
I get the impression that these events, and of course the game itself, will be heavily promoted at the events surrounding the previous night's Colorado College hockey rivalry game -- with the intention of making the MTSU basketball game sort of the middle act of a three-part, sports-crazy Friday & Saturday at DU. (Colorado College at Denver hockey Friday night, MTSU at Denver basketball Saturday afternoon, then load up the buses for Colorado Springs afterward for Denver at Colorado College hockey Saturday night.)
There are hopes of getting 1,000 students to the basketball game. For a school with roughly 5,500 undergrads, whose "student section" for basketball is generally so small that it's difficult to definitively locate -- I actually had to be reminded yesterday where it's supposed to be -- that would be a huge accomplishment. If they can somehow pull it off, or anything remotely close to it, that would certainly enliven the atmosphere for the big ESPN2 spotlight game.
That said, the atmosphere on Thursday for the Arkansas State game was already pretty darn good. Attendance was officially announced at 7,075, the third-largest basketball crowd in Magness Arena history. If accurate, that would mean Magness was filled to 98% of its 7,200-seat capacity, which definitely wasn't the case; the 7,075 is clearly based on tickets distributed rather than people actually present. But if you told me the crowd was 6,000 or so, I'd believe that (and since the official numbers are always inflated, that might very well be the third-largest crowd ever). It was definitely a very, very big crowd by Denver basketball standards.
As you can see in the photo at the top of this post, there were fans everywhere. Even the sections that are normally almost empty were instead packed:
Remember the Boise State game, when I let my daughters run wild through the upper sections of the arena, zig-zagging across empty row after empty row? That's the section pictured above. Amazing. I've *never* seen it look like that before.
Anyway, after arriving and taking in this exciting atmosphere, I had a challenge: finding the press box. That's where the CBA-YLD networking event was, and ironically, despite this being the rare DU game that I was NOT attending as press, this was also the very first time I was heading for the press box. I hadn't ever been up there before; I always watch the games from the floor. But the press box is where the free beer and pizza was, and where the other lawyers were (in that priority order), so that's where I was going.
I figured it couldn't be too hard to find my way up. Wrong -- I spent a good 10 minutes wandering around, looking for the way up, and at one point started up a staircase that let me to a door that would have taken me out onto the rafters if I'd opened it. I demurred, headed back down to the concourse, and eventually found an elevator tucked into a nondescript back room labeled with a small sign: "Elevator to Press Box." Up I went.
Upon introducing myself to a few folks, I quickly became a sort of ambassador for the team, and for mid-major hoops more generally. Perhaps not surprisingly, most of the attorney-attendees had never been to a DU game before, had no idea whether the team was good or not, and were really just there for the networking (and/or the free food and beer). Certainly, this was not a group with any sort of working knowledge of Sun Belt hoops. At one point, when I was telling a female attorney that Denver's one really bad loss of the season was to Arkansas-Little Rock, she pithily replied, "I didn't know there WAS an Arkansas-Little Rock." (Clearly she didn't watch the First Four last year! Solomon Bozeman! C'mon!) Someone else then asked where Arkansas State was located; I said I believed it was in Jonesboro. "I didn't know there WAS a Jonesboro," came the reply.
In any case, I explained to anyone who would listen that Denver was in fact quite good this season, and that although they would need to win the Sun Belt Tournament to get to the Big Dance, they might be a #13 or #14 seed if they could do that -- not a #15 or #16, as one might expect in a more typical year. Yet as the game got underway, the Pios didn't exactly live up to that advance billing, at least not on offense. They were 3-for-11 from #superhoop land in the first half, and didn't give the crowd much to cheer about, outside of a beautiful game-opening layup by Chase Hallam off a feed from the tipoff, and a Chris Udofia #omgdunx at the 12:35 mark. Otherwise, it was fairly plodding offensive performance. After falling behind 10-2, Arkansas State rallied to tie the game at 14 with 7:38 left in the half, and it was a distressingly close 20-19 with two minutes to go.
Then came the eight-point possession. Brian Stafford hit a #superhoop at 1:42, and A-State's Trey Finn was called for a flagrant foul. Justin Coughlin converted both free throws, then Denver got the ball back because of the flagrant, and Brett Olson made good on the opportunity by hitting a #superhoop of his own. In literally nine seconds of basketball time, the score had gone from 20-19 Denver to 28-19 Denver. I was engrossed in conversation with a fellow attorney as this was happening, and didn't fully realize what had occurred until I looked up the scoreboard and had to do a double-take.
The Pioneers would never look back after that fortuitous sequence of events. Early in the second half, they quickly expanded their 28-21 halftime lead to 38-23, after which Arkansas State wouldn't get closer than nine points. The second half was a lot more entertaining for the home crowd (most of which, impressively, stuck around), with DU going 8-for-12 from #superhoop land, and Udofia thundering home another fantastic #omgdunx at 5:51 to give Denver its largest lead of the night, 60-40.
I was, again, only half paying attention to all this, as I had gotten caught up in a wide-ranging conversation with an attorney who had arrived at halftime. She attended the University of Texas for undergrad, then a New York-area law school, and had recently moved to Denver, so we talked about everything from college basketball and the Mid-Majority (yes, TMM came up), to the USC-Texas Rose Bowl (as a Trojan alum, I'm not still bitter, I swear), to the Blackout of 2003 (I was living in NYC at the time), to politics -- the latter being an always dangerous topic of casual conversation, but one that we both broached gently, then became more comfortable with as we each surmised that the other was also left of center, and thus it was "safe" to, for instance, criticize the Tea Party without risking offense.
My two co-workers at the game teased me for half-ignoring the action on the floor, given that I was the one in attendance who actually cares about DU hoops. They joked that they'd give me a hard time if my impending blog post suggested I had actually been paying attention to the game. Little do they know the 800 Games Project doesn't discriminate in that regard. It's all about individual experience -- and my experience was centered around three things: free food and drink, enjoyable conversation, and observing that remarkable crowd.
The final score, incidentally, was Denver 66, Arkansas State 52. Exactly what Vegas expected in installing Denver as a 14-point favorite.
After the buzzer sounded, I said goodbye to my fellow attorneys, headed down to the floor, and exchanged my Serious Lawyer Hat for my Fake Journalist Hat. I wanted to join the press for postgame interviews with Joe Scott and the players, mainly to ask them their thoughts on the crowd.
First, though, I observed an absolutely enormous number of "Rising Stars" out on the court -- maybe the most I've ever seen.
The "Rising Stars" program is Denver's way of honoring local elementary school students by giving them, and their families, free tickets to basketball games (sponsored by Public Service Credit Union), and allowing them postgame court access and autograph sessions with players and coaches. It also has the benefit of boosting attendance numbers; I've seen DU essentially manufacture crowds of maybe 3,000 on particularly large "Rising Stars" nights.
Thursday was different, though: you can't manufacture a crowd of 6,000+, so although there was a large "Rising Stars" contingent, that was only part of the story. I suspect we are also seeing some Rising Stars "alums" coming back for subsequent games, having been entertained by what they saw the first time around -- which is surely a long-term goal of the program. Mission accomplished, or on its way to being accomplished.
Anyway, Mile High Bally -- who had been hidden away in my coat pocket all game long, as I wore my Serious Lawyer Hat -- briefly emerged to take part in the "Rising Stars" fun.
After taking that picture, I stuffed Bally back into my coat pocket, and walked to the hallway outside the locker room where interviews are conducted. Moments later, Joe Scott emerged, followed by Stafford and Udofia.
Asked about the crowd, Udofia flashed his trademark wide smile. "It was wild, man," he said. "To see how much support we have now, it's really helped us out. It gives us more confidence."
"I think what happens is, you play well and there's 3,000 there, the next thing you know there's 4,000 there," and the success continues to build on itself, Coach Scott said. "I think we play...exciting basketball. We have some good players, we play both ends of the court when we're playing well, and I think it's sort of catching on."
"It's great to see those crowds," Scott added. "It's good for our players. They've earned it."
Stafford agreed: "It was great. I like playing in front of a crowd like that, with a lot of energy. They were great, gave us a big lift in the first half when we weren't making a lot of shots. We could feel them out there, and it was a lot of fun."
Asked whether he feels the team is being rewarded for all its hard work, the senior co-captain said, "I think so, yeah. Absolutely. We fought through some tough times the last couple of years, stuck with it, and now we have a lot of pieces that have made us into a good team, and we're being rewarded for that work."
Stafford hastened to add, "We want to just keep that going. We haven't done anything yet. We just want to keep winning."
As I finish writing this recap, it's now Saturday night, and Denver has failed, for the moment, in that goal, having lost tonight at Arkansas-Little Rock, thus suffering a disappointing season sweep by UALR. The defeat drops Denver to 6-3 in conference play, with a road heartbreaker at North Texas sandwiched between the pratfalls to the RPI #194-ranked Trojans. Middle Tennessee State, meanwhile, fell short of pulling an upset today at Vanderbilt. The Blue Raiders looked good in defeat, and they remain 9-0 in conference play, seemingly untouchable in the Sun Belt East (the second-place team, Florida Atlantic, is 5-3). Still, the results take a bit of the shine off next Saturday's showdown at Magness. MTSU might have been ranked with a win today, and Denver would have been in sole possession of the Sun Belt West lead.
Instead, DU is tied with North Texas and Louisiana-Lafayette (who DU must visit Thursday before hosting MTSU on Saturday) for second place in the West, all at 6-3. UALR is 7-2, and owns the tiebreaker over the Pioneers, so Denver has a major uphill climb to win the West. With a loss to MTSU, the climb could become insurmountable. That said, if the goal is to stay on the opposite side of the Sun Belt tournament bracket from MTSU, and thus avoid seeing the Blue Raiders before a potential SBC title game, then -- if I understand the Sun Belt's new bracketing procedures correctly -- Denver still controls its own destiny there. As it stands now, the battle for seeds number 3-6 is between DU, UNT, ULL (all 6-3) and FAU (5-3). If Denver wins out, it will finish ahead of all of those teams, for a seed no worse than #3.
It's getting to be that part of the season where things like seeding and brackets are more imminently on the horizon. Denver has just seven regular-season games left. Then comes the tournament in Hot Springs, followed by, hopefully, postseason play. A first-ever NCAA bid, of course, is the thing that would really captivate this hockey school, and move basketball truly into the spotlight. But for now, the Pioneers are taking baby steps, and the progress is finally becoming visible.
at DENVER 66, ARKANSAS STATE 52 01/26/2012
ARKANSAS STATE 9-13 (3-5) -- M. Hooten 3-10 2-2 8; M. Kirkland 6-8 7-8 19; T. Finn 1-3 0-0 2; D. Griswold 3-4 1-1 7; B. Peterson 2-5 1-4 5; E. Townsel 1-3 0-0 3; R. Dickerson 1-4 0-0 2; K. Ogbonnaya-Branch 0-0 0-0 0; A. Sterrenberg 0-1 3-4 3; J. Zuppardo 0-0 0-0 0; B. Clark 1-1 0-0 3. Totals 18-39 14-19 52. DENVER 16-5 (6-2) -- B. Olson 3-7 0-0 9; B. Stafford 4-10 5-6 15; C. Hallam 3-7 0-2 7; C. Udofia 8-13 2-3 21; R. O'Neale 2-6 2-2 7; B. Foeman 0-0 0-0 0; J. Coughlin 1-6 2-2 5; T. Hallam 1-2 0-0 2; C. Griffin 0-0 0-0 0; A. Pickert 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 22-51 11-15 66.
Three-point goals: ARST 2-5 (T. Finn 0-1; B. Clark 1-1; E. Townsel 1-2; M. Hooten 0-1), DEN 11-23 (B. Stafford 2-3; J. Coughlin 1-4; T. Hallam 0-1; C. Hallam 1-2; C. Udofia 3-7; R. O'Neale 1-1; B. Olson 3-5); Rebounds: ARST 30 (B. Peterson 8), DEN 21 (R. O'Neale 6); Assists: ARST 9 (M. Hooten 3), DEN 17 (R. O'Neale 4); Total Fouls -- ARST 18, DEN 19; Fouled Out: ARST-B. Peterson; DEN-None.