Two-game stretch critical for Pios to protect conference standing

Denver (15-10, 7-5 Summit) is likely out of the Summit League regular season title hunt, trailing South Dakota and North Dakota State by 2 games with 4 games to go. But, the Pioneers still have an excellent chance to remain in 3rd place –  a great accomplishment for this program on the rise.

Denver is coming off a disheartening loss at league leader North Dakota State. The Pioneers had a poor start, early foul trouble, shot poorly and were outrebounded by the Bison. There is no time to waste feeling bad about that game because Denver still has a chance to finish strong.

DU faces two teams in the lower half of the Summit League this week – Western Illinois tonight in Macomb, Illinois and IUPUI Sunday afternoon at Magness Arena. Can the Pios continue to buck low preseason expectations and put their stamp on a top third conference finish and secure a solid Summit League Tournament seed?

These next two games are very winnable in a conference where nearly any team can win on any given night.

This week is all about Pioneer basketball – shooting 50%+, holding their opponents under 45% shooting, holding turnovers to 10-12 per game, and winning the rebound battle.  Out of 351 Division I teams, DU is 29th in effective field goal percentage, 243rd in turnovers per possession (19.2%) and 35th in rebounding rate (53.6%). While DU’s free throw percentages (73.9%/63rd) have improved significantly since the start of the season, DU needs to do a better job of forcing fouls, especially in the first half. And of course, they need to avoid the turnovers and keep Daniel Amigo out of early foul trouble.

To watch how Coach Billups and his staff prepare, go here to 9 News video.

There are only four games to go in conference play and Denver will need momentum heading into the league tournament at Sioux Falls. All four of DU’s remaining opponents are currently below Denver in the Summit standings.

Tonight, the Leathernecks (8-15, 5-7 Summit) feature the Summit’s second leading scorer, guard Garrett Covington with 18.3 points per game. Leatherneck forward Mike Miklusak is second in the league with 8.3 rebounds per game. They are scoring 69.9 points per game while DU is scoring 76.1 ppg.. Western Illinois is 5-5 at home this season. While it will not be an easy game, this is one road game where Denver should be favored.

Then, Denver returns to Magness Arena where the Pioneers are 8-3 to face IUPUI. The Jags are 11-15, 5-7 Summit but they have had major problems on the road with a 4-12 record. This is another game the Pioneers must have to solidify their 3rd place standing. The Jags are led in scoring by Darell Combs with 16.5 ppg. and Matt O’Leary with 13.8 ppg.. The Jaguars are scoring and giving up an identical 78.8 ppg..

These two games precede a showdown against Omaha next week at Magness. The Mavs trail Denver by only one game. If Denver stumbles this week, the battle against UNO next week will likely have an impact on Denver’s final league standing because Omaha won the first meeting in Omaha and would, likely, own the tiebreaker.

Sure, the Pioneers have exceeded everyone’s expectations. Now, they have a chance to show they’re for real.