Photo Credit: The Summit League
If you missed the University of Denver Men’s Basketball team’s Summit League Semi-Final against South Dakota State last night, DU lost on a missed free throw by Joe Rosga with barely a second left in the game. It was a heartbreaking finish to a game that the Pioneers probably should have won.
Read that again.
Denver should have won their semi-final game against the #2 seed South Dakota State Jackrabbits. Some things fell against DU in the final minute and a half like that phantom foul against DU that gave SDSU a chance to take the lead (SDSU’s shooter hit 1 of 2 shots to break the 53-53 tie with 2 seconds left).
South Dakota State is a good basketball team and the young, upstart Pioneers gave them all they could handle the night after punching the #3 seed University Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks in the mouth with a 78-70 victory.
Listen, I’m not naive. DU men’s basketball significantly overachieved this year with a 15-14 final regular season record. It was a surprise that the Pios were even able to get to .500. There’s every reason for any pessimist to assume that the Pioneers will regress next year in the 2016-17 season.
Joe Scott’s on-court behavior might be questionable. The program struggles to attract top-flight recruits. The offensive system is slow and hard to watch. Denver can’t rebound. That all may be true, but it’s OK to be optimistic about the future of Denver men’s basketball.
Just a few years ago, Denver was the class of the Sun Belt and the WAC. Thanks to great play from Chris Udofia before he graduated and Royce O’Neal before he transferred to Baylor, DU was one of the top mid-major teams in the country.
Hell, I remember during my freshman year when the Denver-Middle Tennessee State game at Magness Arena was on ESPN. When DU ran the Blue Raiders out of the building, rushing the court after that victory was one of my favorite memories of my college career. While those great times seem to be firmly entrenched in the past, I truly believe the best is yet to come for Joe Scott’s program.
I won’t sit here and try to sell you on his philosophies or on his offensive schemes. I have a tough time getting on board with them myself. But there’s something about his coaching style combined with a very specific type of player that seems to just…work.
Denver is usually the second most talented team in the building, but they’re also usually the hardest-working team on the court. Unfortunately, the truth is, in basketball, hard work doesn’t necessarily outclass talent and the Pios experienced that this year.
But they also saw that talent gap begin to close as the regular season wound down. They didn’t stop working hard, but they got better and started to take teams by surprise. In their last four losses of the year (including the Summit League Semi-final), they lost by no more than 4 points. On top of that, they showed that they were able to stay with any team.
If the game required the Pios to score 80 points, they stepped up and did so. If the game was a lower scoring and it played into their hands, they excelled.
Looking at losses like victories is a surefire way to fool yourself into thinking the Pios are poised to make a run to the Final Four. This team has a long way to go to get back to the way things were during the program’s heyday under Scott, but if the last few weeks of the 2015-16 season are any indication, they’ll be back.
This team is resilient. They just experienced one of the most heartbreaking finishes a team can go through. That’s the best motivation for a team like DU.
DU can shoot the rock as well as any team. They play fundamentally sound basketball…for the most part. They’re due to get a few players back from injury next year. The foundation is there for a rise back to mid-major greatness.
Yeah, Scott still hasn’t led this program to an NCAA Tournament appearance, even during his good years. That elephant is still in the room and we’re not ignoring it. But if we can be patient for just a bit longer, I think we will be rewarded. Scott has had some success at this school and watching DU in the Summit League tournament reminded me of that success.
Give this program a bit more time and I’m convinced they’ll make all of us proud to be Pioneers.