Tournament Woes Stalk Pioneers

Only 33 schools in all of D1, at least 10 years old, have never made it to the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championships, better known as March Madness.

DU is one of ‘them’.

The NCAA tournament has expanded a number of times throughout its history. This is a breakdown of the history of the tournament formats:

  • 1939–1950: 8 teams
  • 1951–1952: 16 teams
  • 1953–1974: varied between 22 and 25 teams
  • 1975–1978: 32 teams
  • 1979: 40 teams
  • 1980–1982: 48 teams
  • 1983: 52 teams (four play-in games before the tournament)
  • 1984: 53 teams (five play-in games before the tournament)
  • 1985–2000: 64 teams
  • 2001–2010: 65 teams (one play-in game to determine whether the 64th or 65th team plays in the first round)
  • 2011–present: 68 teams (four play-in games before all remaining teams compete in the first round)

While DU’s odds have gotten better over time, the Pioneers still sit on the outside looking in.

The Denver Pioneers are one of the more visible programs to not make ‘the dance’ along with sister school, Northwestern. Both were founded by John Evans and both are experiencing the pain of filling out brackets instead of filling up lanes. DU played D1 from 1948 to 1980 and then returned to D1 play again in 1999 while NU has been eligible the entire 76 years of the tournament. DU was eligible for tournament play 48 of those years.

Northwestern has experienced even more pain than DU, if that is possible. DU has always been in a 1-bid conference so the Pioneers had to either win the conference championship or, recently, win their conference tournament.  The Wildcats on the other hand are members of a Power Five Conference where a host of schools from each conference make the dance.  In the past 8 years alone  74% of the power conference members have made the tournament.

Army is in this also-ran group. They turned down the NCAA in 1968 to play in the ‘then’ prestigious NIT. They went undefeated in 1944 (15-0) but a war got in the way so they did not travel to the tournament. Ever since…zip.

Other programs on the outside looking in include The Citadel, William & Mary, St. Francis College, New Hampshire, Maine, UT-Pan American, Stetson (nice hats but bad at Bball), Grambling State, Maryland-Eastern Shore, Youngstown State, Bethune Cookman, Chicago State, Hartford, UMKC, Sacramento State, UT Martin, Jacksonville State, Elon, High Point, Sacred Heart, Stony Brook, Gardner-Webb, Savannah State, UC Davis, Utah Valley.

Earlier this year Denver played two no-bidders – UC Riverside and Lipscomb

The Pioneers are joined in The Summit League by another pair of no bidders – Western Illinois and IPFW

And finally, currently top-ranked Quinnipiac – in hockey – has also never made a trip to the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.

As for the state of Colorado – UNC, Colorado, Colorado State, and Air Force – led by Joe Scott, have made it. Only one state has never had a team in March Madness – Maine.

DU is usually out of the mix.

There was DU’s 2012-2013 squad. (22-10, 16-2 WAC) that ventured to Las Vegas for the league championship and an automatic bid. The one seed, Louisiana Tech, got bounced early giving #2 seed DU a clear path to the NCAA bid. However, in the Quarterfinals, DU was shot down by an upstart Texas State team. DU later accepted an NIT bid where they got their first tournament win against Ohio at Magness. In the next game they traveled to Maryland and held a solid double digit second half lead when DU star Chris Udofia was called for a questionable flagrant call, resulting in a rare 5 point play, that spelled eventual doom for the DU squad (52-62).

2011-12 DU (22-9, 11-5 Sun Belt) may have had an even better shot in taking the Sun Belt title the year before. Playing in Hot Springs, Arkansas, their last year in the Sunbelt, the Pioneers were a #3 seed. DU was bounced in the semifinals, 67-63, by an uncharacteristically poor Western Kentucky (16-19, 7-9 Sunbelt) team. Western Kentucky went on to win the Sunbelt tournament and advance to the NCAA tournament – with a sub-.500 record.

Denver students, fans, and community responded to these talented squads with strong attendance and support.

DU’s basketball history explains much of the current ambivalence around the DU basketball program. It is a cop out to say the reason DU basketball does not receive support because DU is a ‘hockey school’ or a ‘lacrosse school’ as voiced by some players and fans.  The DU and Denver community are fully capable of supporting more than one successful team at the same time – just look at the lacrosse scrimmage against Johns Hopkins. However, until DU hoops can break through, either as a conference #1 seed or as an upstart, it will be difficult for DU basketball to gain visibility, traction, and followers in an already saturated sports market.

9 thoughts on “Tournament Woes Stalk Pioneers”

  1. Unfortunately there are no prospects for men’s basketball to get into the NCAA’s. It’s doesn’t have the team maje-up of players to win the Summit. It’s great to be positive, but the facts are DU hasn’t recruited for Summit competition.

    Hockey and lacrosse games are played on the weekend. Many, or most, basketball games have weekday dates. Is a student expected to say have a 4-5:50 class, go eat dinner and then rush to a 7 pm basketball game….of a team that’s maybe (by a stretch) a .500 team, and in most cases play a boring game against a team you don’t care about (Summit), with a coach yelling all game. Has anyone ever seen Scott on campus speaking with students, mingling. He’s a hidden, high-paid coach that’s failed the last few years.

    Stop blaming the students. Students have many choices of what to do in their free time. More to choose from than 10, 20 years ago.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No one is blaming the students for DU’s recent struggles on the court. it’s far more complex then that — geography, academics, league, history, coaching style, team chemistry and program finances all play a far larger role than student attendance does in how well a college team draws fans.

      That said, DU student hoops attendance has fallen dramatically to almost nothing after pretty strong student attendance as recently as 2013. I don’t expect DU to draw 500 students per game as they did three or four years ago, but drawing 150-200 per game at a school of 5,000 undergrads should not be that difficult. Today, not only are games free for students, but DU is forced to offer bribes in the form of giveaways just to get a handful of kids to come out, and many of them leave the game after the drawing – it’s all about them, not about their support of their school. We’d all like to see the coaches and players mingling more, but at the end of the day, I wish the students cared more about their school, at least for a few hundred to show up…

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Good article, Tim!

    This piece captures the long term wait (and frustration) with DU hoops, and I don’t think the program will get the respect it deserves from the community until it can prove it can make it to the dance.

    One small but important correction – the “flagrant” foul call in the NIT vs Maryland was on Royce O’Neale, not Udofia. That game was Royce’s final game in a Pio uniform and he was fast becoming a high-level D-I player. I would argue that his subsequent shady “transfer” to Baylor later that summer was a body blow to the DU program from which it still has yet to recover…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good catch on Royce – I thought it was Udofia. And, it was a crushing play. They got a three point play and the ball. Then, they either canned a 2 or 3-point shot to instantly cut our lead in half. I tried to erase all this from my memory.

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      1. Most DU students, especially the men, are big college and pro sports fans. The demographics of the student body is the same today as whan I attended DU. So Syracuse, UCLA, and Illinois aren’t playing. Honestly, who cares, Your school is playing, so you go and cheer on your school mates. Don’t be so selfish. I went to every game my frosh year when the team was 2-24. I didn’t sit home and watch my beloved Rangers play. 2 years later we were pretty good and had hippies hanging from the rafters to watch DU-Utah St which was ranked #10. The atmosphere was nuts and we blew them out by over 20 points.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Great article! The O’Neale flagrant foul and his subsequent transfer were definitely two key recent moments for the program. (I believe the foul rule was modified the following year to give the referees the flexibility to avoid such a call for incidental contact.) The 2011-12 team’s WAC tournament flameout was a huge disappointment after beating 3 NCAA tournament teams – Saint Mary’s (with future Cleveland Cavalier Matthew Dellavedova), Southern Miss and Western Kentucky and losing close games to two more – Iona in overtime and CSU by 4 on the road.

    Three key challenges facing DU:
    1. Our academic admission standards are higher than many schools and we are not a good fit for the JUCO transfers that CSU and other schools regularly rely on to fill their roster. However that is also true of Harvard, Duke, Princeton, Creighton, Villanova, Gonzaga, and numerous other regular tournament schools.
    2. While our immediate area is producing some good NCAA players we have quite a few DI basketball schools fighting over them (not just CU, CSU, UNC and Air Force but also Wyoming (Josh Adams and 4 others Coloradans), Omaha (Zach Pirog), Creighton (Ronnie Harrell) and occasionally national schools like Gonzaga (Josh Perkins, Matt Bouldin) & Indiana (De’Ron Davis). Other than Air Force the local schools have all outdone DU both in terms of recruiting and NCAA success in the last five years.
    3. Not does the physical style of play in the Summit League not suit DU but the league’s geographical footprint has taken us away from Texas which was been a key recruiting base for Joe Scott (Udofia, O’Neale, Hallem brothers, etc.) and instead into the snowy states of the midwest and to a conference tournament in South Dakota, neither of which would seem to appeal to any recruit not from those immediate areas. Interestingly some of the conference’s top teams joined DI basketball after Denver’s return but have already made the NCAA tournament before us.

    I am not convinced that Joe Scott has held DU back from greater NCAA success. If you break coaching down into two components – recruiting talent and then making the most of the talent recruited, he seems to be doing particularly well on the second aspect. Not only did he get the two teams mentioned above very close to the tournament with no big-name recruits but his style of play seems to fit with the type of recruit DU is able to attract and he has been successful in identifying some true diamonds in the rough, specifically Udofia who is now in the NBADL and O’Neale who is playing overseas. He signed Colorado Mr. Basketball Brett Olson who had a solid 4-year career across three conferences. Whether another coach could attract better talent (local or otherwise) and get as much from them is unclear. I am sure that the lack of NCAA tournament history is a chicken and egg issue with many recruits – if DU had one team overachieve and make it then we might be able to land a marquee in-state recruit like Perkins at Gonzaga or Dom Collier or Josh Scott of CU. It will be interesting to see how the change in assistant coaches affects upcoming recruiting classes and where those recruits come from. Denver’s D2 Metro State’s Australian pipeline and CSU’s women’s basketball team’s 9 foreign players offer two interesting examples of area schools that have relied on international talent to make up for a lack of local prospects. DU’s ski, golf and tennis teams seem to take this approach with varying degrees of success.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. In most case, you need a contact to succeed in recruiting Europe. I doubt Scott has one. Even so, we should kill in recruiting Israel since DU is obviously attractive to European student/athletes. Didn’t assistant coach Stafford play in Europe.
    Scott suffers from paranoia, sort of like former Jet coach Eric Mangero. He is talented as a coach using a Princeton system,. We need the players to get back to that. The other Summit teams are tall, bulky, with 1-3 good athletes. They would hate playing a motion team where everyone can shoot the 3 and make an old fashioned hook shot. European players fit that kind of system.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. In most case, you need a contact to succeed in recruiting Europe. I doubt Scott has one. Even so, we should kill in recruiting Europel since DU is obviously attractive to European student/athletes. Didn’t assistant coach Stafford play in Europe.
      Scott suffers from paranoia, sort of like former Jet coach Eric Mangero. He is talented as a coach using a Princeton system,. We need the players to get back to that. The other Summit teams are tall, bulky, with 1-3 good athletes. They would hate playing a motion team where everyone can shoot the 3 and make an old fashioned hook shot. European players fit that kind of system.

      Like

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