Over the next four days, Denver men’s hoops (9-5, 1-0) will have a chance to get an early view of how they stack up in the Summit League. The Pioneers play a home game against a solid South Dakota team (10-7, 1-1) on Wednesday night and a Saturday game against league favorite Fort Wayne (11-4, 1-1) on the road.
In a likely 1-bid conference, these two games are not critical but the contests will allow the Pioneers to understand where they stand in the Summit league conference and identify what improvements they need to make as the rest of the season progresses.
In what appeared to a weak non-conference schedule, only 4 of DU’s 13 opponents currently have losing records. DU’s 5 losses came against Jacksonville (11-5), Utah Valley (7-7), Eastern Washington (9-5), Wyoming (11-4), and Texas A&M (8-4) who have gone a combined 46-27.
Who could forget the Utah Valley game when Denver held a 21 point lead at halftime and lost? So, looking backward, the Pioneers dropped games against teams that were solid. Then, they beat the teams that were comparable or worse than them. Again, their current record proves this year’s team is developing consistency which should hold them in good stead for the conference race.
If Denver can finish in the 4th spot or better in the 9-team Summit League, they’ll be in excellent shape for the Conference Tournament because of the Summit’s unusual parity (Fort Wayne excepted).
Starting with South Dakota, Denver needs to take care of business at home against a team which appears to be slightly stronger than them at this point. The Coyotes trounced Omaha 86-69 in Vermillion, S.D. and lost on the road to a weaker than expected South Dakota State by a point 73-72. With the teams so evenly matched in the Summit League, it’s going to be critical to hold serve at home. So, Denver is going to have to fight and scrap to beat the Coyotes because it will be even more difficult to go to Vermillion later in the season and steal the loss back. Again, it’s not a must-win game, but it’s still important for seeding later in the season.
Three days later, the Pioneers travel to league favorite Fort Wayne for an early season tilt. The Mastodons will be playing at home- they took down then-#3 Indiana in OT, 71-68 earlier in the season. Nearly as surprising was cellar dwelling Western Illinois defeating the Mastodons 93-91 on the same floor to open Summit League play. Fort Wayne came back the following game to defeat Oral Roberts to gain back control of their home court. Still, you can bet that a lesson was learned by Fort Wayne in the earlier loss to the Leathernecks. They will not let their guard down against the Pioneers – so expect the Mastodons to fight for their home court lives.
Ideally, Denver needs at least one win this week to continue to feel good about their progress. Their work starts against the Coyotes in a game that will likely end up being very close. Then, the Pioneers will travel to Fort Wayne to try to secure an unexpected road win against the league favorite. But, just as important will be to see how the Pioneers match up on the floor with Fort Wayne. Even in a loss, psychologically, will they feel good about their match-ups against the Mastodons and be positioned to defeat them at Magness later in the season – or even in tournament play.