I know. It sounds crazy with a Denver men’s basketball team sitting at a woeful 2-13, 1-7 in Summit League play. There is no rational reason for hope based on current results – but is there hope nonetheless? There actually is a (highly unlikely) path to the NCAA Tournament for Denver, and here is how. (I promise I’m not on prescription meds and have not been drinking to excess…recently anyway).
According to TeamRankings.com, the Summit League is ranked 29th out of 32 conferences. While South Dakota, South Dakota State, and North Dakota State appear to be the cream of the crop, this is not a strong overall conference. The highest-ranking member according to KenPom, is South Dakota at #152. And yes, Denver is #343 according to KenPom, one of the worst teams in the land. But, let’s face it, at this point, there is not much difference between 152 and 343.
Let’s also not forget that anytime you read a mutual fund prospectus you read a phrase that goes something like this: “Past success does not guarantee future performance.” Maybe the same goes for past failure, too? At some point, the odds just line up in your favor – although this argument runs something akin to buying a $2 ticket in the Mega Millions lottery.
There is no dominant team or true superstar player who can take over a game night in and night out in the Summit League. That means many games are close and often come down to the final minutes. That is where shot selection, defense, and leaving the ball in your best players’ hands are at a premium. Denver has had its most trouble starting and finishing games. Denver coaches need to put the scoring burden on their top players in these situations. Unfortunately, the wrong players have been throwing up ill-advised shots at the worst times. At the beginning and end of games, Jase Townsend, Robert Jones, Sam Hines, Jr., and Eric Moenkhaus should be the only players shooting – period. Outside of layups and other high percentage shots, other players should play key support roles setting up plays, blocking out, setting screens, and rebounding.
Assigning situational roles to players and simplifying responsibilities would allow Denver to reduce turnovers (15 per game currently) and focus on defense and offensive efficiency. They have given up 79 points-per-game against the top half of the conference opponents. DU’s defense is nothing more than a sieve at the moment and it’s unacceptable, especially if Denver is going to make any noise beyond a thud.
Denver is heading into the weakest part of their schedule. While Western Illinois (3-7), UMKC (3-5), and Omaha (0-7) might be licking their chops with the Pioneers on their upcoming schedules, this is an opportunity for DU to generate a little momentum of their own. Collectively, this foursome, including Denver, only has seven conference wins (yes, DU only has 1). If DU could get 4 wins out of their final 6 regular-season games, a tall task, to be sure, they could move up the standings and avoid a 1 vs. 8 showdown to open the conference tournament in Sioux Falls.
And, don’t forget that Denver is getting healthy with one of their top scorers, Robert Jones, back in the lineup and two freshmen starting to get their feet underneath them – Sam Hines, Jr. is turning into a reliable third scorer and Eric Moenkhaus is providing Denver with a dangerous outside scoring threat. Jase Townsend also continues to be a consistent scorer game-in and game-out.
The tournament is taking place during the COVID-19 era so expect fewer spectators in Sioux Falls as the conference tournament is being moved to a new venue, the small 3,200-seat Sanford Pentagon. Not all that different than Hamilton Gym, the cozy confines will feel more like home than the typical Dakotas Basketball fan fest that is the Summit League Tournament.
But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. It all starts with Western Illinois (3-7) this Friday in Macomb, Illinois. Denver needs a split or a sweep. Last place Omaha is playing Kansas City on the road and could get a win to draw even with DU for the cellar unless Denver has a strong weekend showing. So, the turnaround needs to start now.
Should DU defy the odds, they would become an unlikely footnote to history. Florida International won their conference tournament and NCAA berth with an 11-18 record in 1995. Denver could smash that unsightly record with an even more unsightly record of their own.
Let’s face it, as DU basketball fans, all we have is this little shred of hope.