After Saturday’s thrilling last-second overtime win against Summit League favorite Fort Wayne, what did NBA superstar Chauncey Billups say to his brother, head coach Rodney Billups? “Great game”? Nope. “Great coaching”? Nope.
“You should have won that game by 15 points, ” said Chauncey to his younger brother following the overtime thriller. That shows the hyper-competitiveness of the Billups brothers. They’re not satisfied with “good enough.” They place the same expectations on each other that Rodney places on his team. After every win or loss, there is always a “We’ve got to keep getting better everyday” from Rodney Billups – and he means what he says.
When he was hired, he directed a joke at DU Athletic Director (or whatever asinine long title the school gives her) Peg Bradley-Doppes, “If I don’t win enough games – will you still love me?” And his thoughts on Peg’s hypothetical response, “Yes, I’ll love you but I’ll miss you, too.”
Not much chance of that.
It feels like an eternity since the Pioneers were in a position to compete for a league title – but really, it wasn’t all that long ago.
During the 2012-2013 season, the Pioneers were tied for the best record in the WAC with a 16-2 in-conference record; tied with Louisiana Tech. As many DU fans will recall, New Mexico State won the WAC Tournament and Denver went on to the NIT. That began Denver’s downward spiral with a new conference, player exits (Royce O’Neal, anyone?), declining win totals, falling attendance, and the firing of Joe Scott.
Enter Billups and his staff for their first year with shallow expectations from league coaches and Pioneer fans.
But, sooner than expected, fans can dream again.
Denver has only five games to go in the regular season. Denver’s journey down the stretch starts Saturday afternoon in Fargo, North Dakota where Denver can potentially pull into a 3-way tie for first place in the Summit League following North Dakota State’s win over South Dakota State and South Dakota’s win at Fort Wayne last night. All of a sudden, the Summit looks like a 3-horse race.
And hardcore Pioneer hoops fans will remember last year’s painful trip to Fargo when the Pioneers were thrown into the wood chipper in a 75-49 a loss. Well, Denver returned the favor this season at Magness Arena, 79-55, – but can the Pios continue their roll against the first place Bison and sweep the current league leaders?
It will likely take winning four out of the next five games and maybe five out of five to clinch a title.
If this year’s upstart Denver team can win the regular season Summit League title, they will likely secure a path to the NIT at minimum and possibly earn an NCAA birth at the Summit League Tournament in Billups first year.
No one expected this – except maybe Billups. And many Pioneer fans remain cautious, having been burned by past failures. But, to even the most casual follower, this team is becoming something more than an interesting curiosity.
However, win or lose, don’t expect a satisfied Billups. He has work to do. Facing the never ending task of developing players, reviving a moribund program, and a big brother who is unlikely to give him his due without a championship, he will keep pushing himself, his staff and his players in the most unlikely of all seasons.
Raj Sharon, the team’s play-by-play announcer, has learned how Billups thinks. Following a recent win, Sharon prefaced his post game interview, “After all this winning, I am sure that you are going to nitpick.” after which Billups said, “We’ve got to get better.”
The Pioneers tip off against the Bison in Fargo, North Dakota on ESPN3 at 1:00 MT this Saturday.