Billups 2005 Tournament Championship Team Goes Unrewarded

Rodney Billups was captain of DU’s first basketball team to ever win an NCAA Division 1 conference tournament basketball championship.

‘What?’ you say. Then how come the Pioneers never made the big dance?

On March 8th, 2005 senior guard Rodney Billups traveled to Denton, Texas with his Denver Pioneers (20-10) to play in the Super Pit for the Sun Belt championship. Denver had earned the #1 seed in the Sun Belt Tournament and were poised for their first ever D-1 hoops league title and automatic berth to the NCAA Championship Tournament.

basketball-yemi
Star center Yemi Nicholson played from 2003-06 at DU, leading the Pioneers to their only West Conference Sun Belt regular season title in 2005.

In the finals, Denver faced the Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns in a showdown of #1 and #2 bracket seeds (#1 West Conference champions vs. #2 East Conference ). The Denver squad in 2005 was strong and had a good reason to feel confident. Denver swept the Ragin’ Cajuns earlier that season.  DU went on the road January 8, 2005 and beat Louisiana-Lafayette without Orien Greene, their point guard, in the lineup. A month later, the teams met again in Denver and the Pioneers won again, 72-66, with Orien Greene leading the Cajuns in scoring with 21 points.

In the Championship game, Billups led the Pioneers with 16 points in a an apparent 88-69 loss to Louisiana-Lafayette (20-10) Ragin’ Cajuns. The Pioneers’ dreams of a championship and first-ever automatic birth to the NCAA’s were shattered when Cajun guard Tiras Wade went off for 30 points and won the scoring dual against Denver’s star center Yemi Nicholson. Cajun point guard Orien Greene chipped in with 14 points and a strong all-around game.

The Tournament that Wasn’t:

First Round
Game 1: W4 South Alabama 57, E5 Florida International 60
Game 2: E4 Arkansas State 84, W5 North Texas 76
Game 3: E3 Middle Tennesse 77, W6 New Mexico State 63
Quarterfinals
Game 4: E1 Arkansas-Little Rock 64, E5 Florida International 69
Game 5: W1 Denver 64, E4 Arkansas State 57
Quarterfinals
Game 6: E2 Western Kentucky 78, W3 New Orleans 67
Game 7: W2 Lousiana-Lafayette 71, E3 Middle Tennessee 57
Semifinals
Game 8: W1 Denver 77, E2 Western Kentucky 68
Game 9: E5 Florida International 69, W2 Louisiana-Lafayette 80
Championship Game
Game 10: W1 Denver 69, W2 Louisiana-Lafayette 88

But there is more to the story, namely Orien Greene.

In 2007, the Ragin’ Cajuns were found guilty of major violations in its men’s basketball program. An NCAA investigation found that former player Orien Greene had relied on 15 hours of correspondence courses taken through another institution in order to remain eligible for the 2004 spring semester and the entire 2004–05 academic year. NCAA rules do not allow student-athletes to use correspondence courses taken from another institution to remain eligible. According to the NCAA, this was an “obvious error” that should have been caught right away, but the school’s then-compliance coordinator, director of academic services and registrar all failed to catch it. When school officials learned about the violations, they vacated every game in which Greene participated—43 games in all, including NCAA tournament appearances in 2004 and 2005—and scrubbed Greene’s records from the books. The NCAA accepted Louisiana–Lafayette’s penalties and also imposed two years’ probation.

Unfortunately, the NCAA rules infraction penalty for Greene was applied two years too late – so DU never got their chance to dance. And DU hoops stars Billups and Nicholson had graduated from DU.

Without Greene (14 points, 11 rebounds, 3 assists, & 6 steals) in the 2005 title game, there is little doubt the final results may have been much different. Nonetheless, Greene never should have been on the floor.

Instead, in the spring of 2005, the Pioneers traveled to San Francisco to play the University of San Francisco and lost a heart-breaker, 69-67, to the Dons in the NIT’s first round.

Andre Hazel (2) of USF drives against Rodney Billups of Denver. The USF Dons vs. the University of Denver Pioneers in the NIT basketball tournament at USF. John Storey San Francisco Event on 3/16/05 Photo: John Storey
Denver’s Rodney Billups in the NIT vs. San Francisco in a match-up that never should have happened.

And the Ragin’ Cajuns? They were bounced in the first round of the 2005 NCAA’s by Louisville.

Greene was drafted in the 2005 NBA draft as the 53rd overall pick by the Boston Celtics. He knocked around the NBA as a point guard/journeyman with Indiana, Sacramento and New Jersey through the 2011 season. Then, he traveled and played in various European leagues. On December 31, 2016, Greene signed with Guaros de Lara of the Liga Profesional de Baloncesto.

As for Pioneer basketball, the 2005 team never got a banner in the rafters of Magness Arena, a parade down Asbury, or a chance to play Louisville in the NCAA tournament.

sunbelt-champions
This ‘Second Place’ tournament trophy sits in a Magness Trophy case. It should be sent back to the Sun Belt Conference, re-engraved and presented to the 2005 team.

When looking at the records, the 2005 Sun Belt title shows as ‘vacated’ with Denver as runner-up. An injustice that should be righted.

Only a handful of fans know that head coach Rodney Billups will be trying to win the Pioneers second D-1 conference tournament championship from the bench. Something only his 2005 DU hoops team had done before.

 

 

 

9 thoughts on “Billups 2005 Tournament Championship Team Goes Unrewarded”

  1. I remember watching that SBC title game on ESPN, and it was frustrating, as DU had a great year, but got totally blown out by the Cajuns when it mattered. In one-bid leagues like the Sun Belt, WAC and Summit league, you need your team to deliver its very best effort in the one conference game that really matters – the conference tourney title game, and that Pio team just didn’t play as well as ULL that night in Denton.

    Had the Pios won that game and gone to the NCAA tournament that year, DU basketball may be in a different place right now. Terry Carroll might still be coaching the team instead of spiraling the DU program deep into the toilet two years later, when DU went 4-24 with the worst RPI in the country and Carroll stopped coming to work halfway through the season on “medical leave” and not returning his bosses’ phone calls.

    NCAA infractions happen to many programs, but they almost always come to light (and get adjudicated) long after the seasons in question are over and the players have moved on.

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  2. I wasn’t aware of this, very interesting and unfortunate.

    It also made me do some digging and man, 2013 was a real wasted opportunity. Denver was easily the highest rated WAC team, #28 in the country by kenpom entering the conference tournament, (Louisiana Tech was #78 and NMSU was #87) so they should have been heavy favorites to win it. (I don’t know if that was the perception at the time?)

    Anyway, they lose their first game to Texas State… the Pios had to have been at least 20 point favorites in that game. I’m glad I wasn’t out here in Denver following the team at that point, that would have been heart breaking.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Texas State was a brutal loss. I remember following the ESPN Scorecenter feed on a commuter bus in NYC and they had the wrong score down the stretch. Somewhere in there they had DU scoring a basket to tie or go up 2, when in reality it was Texas State scoring to go up 4, I believe. The score was never corrected for say, the last 2 minutes. So I thought the game was headed for OT, until they corrected it as it went final. Yeah, that sucked.
      That team was stacked and playing great basketball down the regular season stretch. It was easily the worst loss in terms of significance of the Joe Scott tenure.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Not only that Chris but that was the same year attendance started to slide. The prior season had 7,000 plus fans for Arkansas State and Wyoming. Five games drew over +6000 fans. and 5 games with +5,000 fans. The real hit on the program was when Royce O’neal left for Baylor. At that point, DU started heading south on the floor and in the stands. Denver fans have shown they will support a winner and Billups will get there…

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    1. Losing Royce O’Neal was the blow that the program could not recover from. Just a transformational player and teamed with Udofia and a full deck of complementing pieces, those were some great teams.
      I remember searching in September of that year to find out the Pios upcoming non-conference schedule and discovering and being absolutely shocked that O’Neal had transferred. Given the rigid time constraints and enforced bubble of being a college basketball player, the whole hardship premise always seemed a bit dubious.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Wow, I had no idea things were so different just a few years ago. I moved to Denver in the summer of 2015 and adopted the Pioneers since I’m a huge college basketball fan. I’ve been to… let’s see, 19 games now at Magness in the past 1 1/2 seasons and they have all had very low attendance. It’s hard for me to even imagine a packed house and wild crowd, but I do think Billups can get them there, so that’s something to look forward to.

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  5. AttendAnce at Magness for men’s hoops is usually a struggle. There is little hoops tradition here, lots of winter competition, and DU has never been dancing, nor does DU draw many attractive name brand opponents, thus limiting local interest. Even when DU had much larger crowds in the early years of this decade, many of those crowds were heavily-papered with freebies from the “Rising Stars” program where local young children (and their families) scored free admittance for good report cards/behavior at school, and DU reports tickets distributed, not butts in the actual seats.

    The best basketball crowd (not the biggest) was in 2012, when DU beat Middle Tennessee State in DU’s only ESPN televised home game. Hype on campus was big and about 1,000 students showed up (DU helped boost this number of students by closing off the dorm cafeterias that day and forcing the dorm-based kids to eat at the arena. DU won the game in a blowout and the students stormed the court.

    You can see a video of it here:

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    1. Good points Puck. As you have said before, the Magness layout it not ideal with too many ‘end zone’ seats. They should give those away but maintain pricing integrity on the other seats. The issue was screaming kids in some of the prime seats that was a problem.

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  6. The reason why DU has so many end-zone seats is because of with all the different type of spaces that had to be squeezed into the Ritchie Center’s 440,000 square-foot footprint when it was built. Agree that those should be the freebie locations for hoops, but the reality is that with 1,600 average fan count per game per game rattling around in a 7,000 seat building, people can sit pretty where they want.

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