Denver head coach Joe Scott knows a little bit about Northern Iowa. And he’s not afraid to tell you that he’d like to follow in their footsteps.
Last season, Scott’s Pioneers opened their season by hosting the Panthers. I was at that game, and I watched DU lose a close contest, 71-65. The Pioneers wouldn’t lose again at Magness Arena all season, rattling off a 15-winning home winning streak that’s now tied for eighth-longest in the nation (as each and every DU basketball press release will remind you). The Panthers, meanwhile, went on to a 28-4 regular season, a double-championship in the Missouri Valley Conference, and, of course, an epic win over Kansas that sent UNI to the Sweet Sixteen and taught everyone in America the name Farokhmanesh.
All of which is background to this: in the aftermath of Northern Iowa’s shocker over Kansas, local NBC affiliate KUSA invited Scott to appear on “9News Overtime” and give his thoughts on March Madness. And mixed in with his analysis of the tourney, Scott volunteered that UNI’s level of success is where he’d like DU to eventually be. Following in the Panthers’ footsteps, he said, is the Pioneers’ ultimate goal. (I’m paraphrasing, as I can’t find the video clip right now. I’ll post the link if and when I can locate it.)
That’s some heady talk for the leader of a team that went 19-13 last year — 15-1 at home, 2-1 on neutral floors, but 2-11 on the road — with a 10-8 regular-season record in the 20th-ranked conference (out of 33) in the country. Granted, those numbers represent significant and steady improvement throughout Scott’s tenure (another fact that DU’s press releases never fail to mention). The year before Scott arrived, the Pioneers were 4-25, and 3-15 in Sun Belt play. His first year: 11-19 and 7-11. His second year, when they had the youngest team in America: 15-16, 9-9, and a merciful end to their nation’s-worst 43-game road losing streak. And then last year, 19-13 and 10-8. Certainly, the program seems to be headed in the right direction.
But: Northern Iowa? Or, as WAC commissioner Karl Benson put it in yesterday’s teleconference announcing that his league is adding Denver to the fold in 2012, “the next Gonzaga”?
Scott doesn’t shy away from such talk. “I didn’t talk this way in year 1, I didn’t talk this way in year 2, I didn’t talk this way in year 3,” Scott told me on this season’s first day of official practice, October 15, when I asked about his lofty expectations-setting. “What time do you try to start to develop the program in that direction? So I’ve just decided that it’s time to do that.”
Primarily, at least, “that” means not so much making long-term comparisons to programs like Northern Iowa and Gonzaga, but articulating the team’s overarching short-term goal for the 2010-11 season: winning a conference championship. At every press conference, speech and one-on-one interview, Scott says that’s the goal: a Sun Belt Conference championship banner hanging in Magness Arena.
One might be tempted to call this the audacity of hope, considering the Pioneers haven’t even really come close to winning a championship yet. Last year, they finished three games back of a regular-season title, and bowed out in the conference tournament semifinals to North Texas, a team that has been something of a nemesis for DU. So a more cautious coach might hold his precise goals and expectations a bit closer to the vest, privately hoping to simply get a bit closer to the promised land this year — a close second-place finish in the standings, a trip to the conference title game, perhaps — and then start talking championships next year, when the Pioneers will be almost a classic, archetypal senior-laden experience mid-major squad.
But Scott isn’t waiting to ramp up the expectations.
“It doesn’t matter if I say it, or somebody else says it,” Scott explains. “Everybody else is saying the same thing, that we’re supposed to be competing for a conference championship. So I’d rather do it this way, and say it. When you have the parts, it’s time to get our players to think this way.”
Those “parts,” according to Scott, are an experienced, veteran team that is only losing one player from last year. Unfortunately, that one player is Nate Rohnert, who happened to be the team’s star. But Scott is hopeful that top-scoring returners Brian Stafford and Chase Hallam, among others, will step up to fill the void left by Rohnert’s graduation. Meanwhile, Scott believes that the addition of freshman Chris Udofia and redshirt sophomore Trevor Noonan, a transfer from Air Force, will serve to give the Pioneers some “missing ingredients” that had been lacking on their roster previously: “a little more size, a little shot-blocking.”
At the team’s first official practice on October 15, Scott said he was encouraged with the early progress that had been made — starting with the team’s summer trip to Spain, and continuing with unofficial off-season practices led by captain Kyle Lewis — in showing Udofia and Noonan the ropes, and minimizing the learning curve as the experienced players and the new additions seek to “gel together.” Several observers noted that the team was already running its Princeton-style offense at a surprisingly high level at the first practice, suggesting they were light-years ahead of where previous years’ teams have been at the same point in the season.
The team’s summer trip to Spain — in which they played six professional teams of various calibers, and went 4-2 against them — is a key component of the optimism Scott has been projecting about the Pioneers’ prospects in 2010-11. He has repeatedly cited the trip as precedent for believing that this squad can do special things. When he was an assistant at Princeton, and later when he was the head coach at Air Force, Scott’s teams took similar overseas trips in the offseason (allowed once every four years by the NCAA), and in both cases, those teams accomplished great things in the season that followed, as he told DU faculty and staff (starting around the 3:30 mark).
Princeton’s 1997-98 team, he notes, was ranked #7 in the country at one point, earned a #5 seed, and won an NCAA Tournament game, fresh off a preseason trip to Italy. Six years later, in 2003-04, Air Force won the Mountain West and earned an NCAA bid, after a trip to Sweden and Denmark. Both of those were veteran teams, and Scott believes the overseas trip gave them the leg up they needed to surpass expectations in the season that followed. “I’m bringing that up,” he says, “because I think that’s the kind of team we have now.”
All that said, Scott clearly does not anticipate a completely smooth ride to the promised land. He’s set up perhaps Denver’s most challenging non-conference schedule ever, highlighted by a home date with soon-to-be conference-mate and mid-major powerhouse Utah State of the WAC on December 1, and a trip to St. Mary’s of the WCC, Gonzaga’s arch-rival and a Sweet Sixteen team last year, on December 8.
Throw in tonight’s opening game, against defending Big West double-champion UC-Santa Barbara (favored to repeat), and tomorrow’s road game at Oregon (admittedly an awful Pac-10 team, but still, a Pac-10 team), plus later games vs. Colorado State (an improving team in the Mountain West, expected to finish in the middle of that conference), at Boise State (picked third in the WAC), vs. Portland (a recent challenger to Gonzaga and St. Mary’s in the WCC), and vs. Northern Colorado (much improved in the Big Sky, expected to compete for that league’s title again), and it’s clear the Pioneers are likely to have a number of losses under their belt by the time Sun Belt play starts on December 21.
Scott seems to expect precisely that, although he doesn’t quite say it flat-out. He says he wants the Pioneers “playing their best basketball” by January 1. “Two years ago, in our second year, it took us until February 15 — the last three weeks of the season — to play our best basketball,” he says. “Last year, it took till February 1 — the last 10 games, for 5 weeks, we played our best basketball. Well, now, we gotta be doing it on January 1. And that’s called competing for a conference championship.”
Scott then asks himself whether DU might reach that level of play sooner: “Will it happen on November 12?” (That would be today, in the season opener, for those keeping score at home.) “Is it gonna be December 1?” He admits he doesn’t know. But it has to happen by January 1, “because that’s when you start to win and compete for a conference championship.”
In other words, the non-conference schedule is an elaborate tune-up for Sun Belt play. As senior captain Kyle Lewis put it: “It will go a long way toward making us see what it will take to win this year. I give a lot of credit to Coach. He could have loaded up the schedule with other teams, and maybe we would go 12-0. But that is not the way you build a team. You build a team by challenging them, and that is what he’s doing.”
For a team with essentially no hope of an at-large bid, this probably makes good sense. Whether Denver goes 12-0 or 4-8 in its non-conference slate won’t much matter, except perhaps to determine whether a hypothetical Sun Belt champion Pioneers squad would be, say, a #14 or #15 seed. But they’re less likely to become that hypothetical championship squad if they haven’t challenged themselves early on. That certainly seems to be Scott’s thinking, anyway.
In that vein, Scott won’t say what his win-loss goal, if any, is for this weekend’s BTI Tournament in Eugene, which will see the Pioneers face UCSB tonight, Oregon tomorrow and North Dakota State on Sunday. Instead, he says he is more concerned with the team’s quality of play, regardless of the outcomes of the games. At a press conference in October (starting around 15:30 mark), Scott said, “I don’t want to deal in, ‘Is it going to be one [win], is it going to be two, is it going to be three.’ … I might say that stuff to myself, but to our team…the goal I’m going to set for our guys is to…deal with adversity. Those three games are going to be adversity. You’re tired, you’re worn out. You’re going to have your good times, you’re going to have your bad times in those three games, and that’s a little microcosm of the season, really.”
I spoke yesterday to Lewis, the team captain, and it was clear he has assimilated Coach Scott’s philosophy (and a bit of his coach-speak) on the subject. Asked if he looks at the games in Eugene as an opportunity to “make a statement” about the team’s ability to win away from Magness Arena, Lewis said, “I think the beginning of the season in when you build habits. I don’t know that it’s necessarily about wins and losses. It’s really about starting our habits off the right way. And if we build the right habits right now, then I think it will carry that consistency throughout the year.”
Personally, whatever happens against UCSB and North Dakota State, I’d love to see the Pioneers pull a Red Line Upset against the Ducks tomorrow. Oregon is probably the worst team in a bad Pac-10, yet they still have the aura of being a BCS team, and to beat them in Eugene would feel, I think, like a major step forward for a program such as Denver, especially given its history of road struggles. (Plus, Oregon is Kyle Whelliston’s alma mater, and I’m sure he’d love to see them lose to a below-the-Red-Line upstart.)
In any case, Scott says his players are eager to get on the court and start playing games: “Our guys are just ready to play a game. It’s like, the practices are sort of–” Scott’s voice trailed off here, but he appeared to be suggesting that the players are about ready to be done with all the preseason practice and preparation, and eager to get on with the season: “We’re ready for the next phase.” Lewis seemed to confirm this: “It’s going to be exciting to see how these guys come out, and how we react to a tough weekend of three games.”