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.

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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.

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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.