With Denver reeling and the next four conference games on the road, this felt like a game that the Pioneers needed to win. Instead, they came out flat and made numerous mistakes while committing 17 costly turnovers that gave Fort Wayne an easy 19 point victory. It was a frustrating game to watch and is Denver’s fifth consecutive loss against DI opponents (the Pios did beat DII Colorado Mesa on December 28), with the road not getting any easier from here.
The first half began with Denver and Fort Wayne trading buckets, a promising start for what many thought would be a back and forth competitive game. But after Denver took a 6-4 lead, Fort Wayne went on a 9-0 run to grab a 13-6 lead that they would never relinquish. Despite a Jake Pemberton 3 to close the half, Fort Wayne still went into the break with a 45-35 lead. Joe Rosga had a great first half, scoring 13 points, but John Konchar really set the tone, getting halfway to a triple double for the Mastodons in the first half (5 points, 5 rebounds, 5 steals) and controlling things on both ends. I asked Coach Billups how he game planned for such an electric player and here’s what he had to say: “You don’t. You play how we play. We try to outrebound teams, we did that. We try to keep them under 40%, we weren’t successful in that, they shot 49% from the field. And try not to turn the ball over. Good players are going to make plays. He’s probably if not the best, one of the best players in our league.”
Unfortunately, the Pioneers did little to control Konchar or the rest of Fort Wayne in the second half. The half started with a 10 point deficit, but that quickly got to 16 by the 17:10 mark and would hover around that mark for the rest of the half. Denver made a couple of mini runs, but never anything that was a serious threat to Fort Wayne, and the Mastodons were able to coast for the second part of the second half. Once again Denver saw big scoring nights from Rosga (18 points), Daniel Amigo (13 points), and Pemberton (10 points), but struggled to get much else. I asked Coach Billups what he could do to get some more output from the other players and he seemed to think it would come with time, saying he would “Just keep encouraging them. Just keep putting them in the position to be successful. And not shy away from the moment, they have to be confident when it all counts.”
You have to dig deep to find some positives from this game, but there are a couple. Rosga had 18 points and 6 rebounds (though only 3 assists) and Christian Mackey had a nice role performance with 6 points on perfect 3-3 shooting from the field. Overall though, we saw a lot of the same problems we have seen all season with limited answers. It’s concerning as conference play marches on, but when I asked Coach Billups about the remainder of conference play, he wasn’t ready to adjust expectations yet: “[My goal is] to win it. We’re 0-2, my expectation hasn’t changed. It’s a long season, we have 12 more conference games. We’re probably not the only team that’s 0-2 in their league that has a chance to win it.”
Coach Billups is right that two games do not make a season, but we’re seeing a lot of the same issues game in and game out, which is frustrating. At the top of this list is turnovers – Denver had 17 today and coming into today ranked as the 9th most turnover prone team in DI basketball, out of 351 teams. Coach Billups was as frustrated as all of us when I asked him if there was any way to improve the turnover problem. “It’s hard as a coach to help them with turnovers. You know, I’m not making decisions for them, I’m not passing it for them, I’m just trying to put them in position to hit guys when they’re open, and we don’t do a great job of that right now.”
As we go into the third game of the Summit League season, Denver finds itself at a crossroads. Their next game is at North Dakota State, and the Bison appear to be clearly superior to this Pioneers team, so it’s hard to see Denver leaving Fargo with a victory. From there they travel to South Dakota State, Omaha, and Oral Roberts. The game in Brookings looks bleak, so Denver may very well find itself at 0-4 in the conference with the games at Omaha and Oral Roberts suddenly becoming must wins just to avoid the Summit League basement. Four road games in a row looks tough on paper, but after the Pioneers’ early struggles, Coach Billups was actually excited when I asked him how he felt about it. “It makes it better because we limit distractions. We go on the road and it’s just our team, we’ve got to figure it out, we’ve got to have some uncomfortable conversations and it’s easier to do that on the road when there’s less distractions, so I’m excited about getting on the road and being a team and being a part of this group and see what happens.”
The game against North Dakota State is on Thursday, January 11 at 6 PM MST – hopefully some of these uncomfortable conversations that Coach Billups referenced will rejuvenate this Denver team and we’ll see a whole new team in Fargo – I hope to at least see a competitive game with fewer turnovers and unforced errors.