Over on The Mid-Majority today, Kyle Whelliston quoted Mark Macon, interim head coach of the Binghamton Bearcats — which Whelliston called “quite simply one of the worst and most inept Division I basketball teams I have ever seen” — as saying after a 55-45 loss to Canisius: “There’s victory in losing. It’s the opportunity to get better. That’s not a ‘moral’ victory, you know. It’s getting better.”
The Denver Pioneers are a disappointing 1-5 to start the season, but they certainly aren’t an historically bad team in Division I hoops history. Even so, DU head coach Joe Scott may find himself channeling Macon after tonight’s game against Utah State, and more broadly after the Pioneers’ next four games — only one of which appears, on paper, to be a semi-likely win. In a press conference yesterday, Scott seemed to be girding himself for that reality.
Scott said DU, which started 0-4, has shown improvement in its last two games — a 69-51 home win over a bad Alcorn State team, and a 65-52 road loss to a decent-but-not-great Boise State team — and in its practices. “We’ve gotten better since our Boise State game. Our team is on the right track. Our players know that. The unfor–” At this point, Scott stopped himself, then went on: “It’s not unfortunate, but it’s– just because you’re on the right track, when you’re playing the schedule we are, that doesn’t mean results are going to come immediately.”
Any result other than a loss tonight would be stunning. Even if Denver were 5-1 instead of 1-5, they would be a heavy underdog in this one. I’m not a betting man, but the Vegas line I’m seeing, Utah State -9.5, sounds like a bargain. Every DU loss, including at home to Colorado State, has been by double digits, and Utah State is by far the best team they’ve played.
The Aggies have one of the top mid-major programs in the country over the last decade, and they presently sit at 4-1, ranked 26th in both the RPI and Basketball State’s national ratings. USU’s only loss is to BYU, ranked #14. Among mid-majors (not counting the above-the-Red-Line MWC), Utah State trails only St. Mary’s — which DU faces next Wednesday, on the Gaels’ home floor — Old Dominion and, if you consider the Atlantic-10 a mid-major, Xavier (one of Whelliston’s sub-Red-Line “exceptions”) and Richmond.
And with ODU, Xavier, Richmond and Utah State all ranked consecutively in the #23 through #26 spot, it’s no great stretch to argue that Denver will be playing the two best mid-major teams in the country over the course of the next week — Utah State at home and St. Mary’s on the road.
In between those daunting games, the Pioneers have a home date with 2-4 Cal State Northridge this Saturday, ranked #157 and the one winnable-sounding game mentioned earlier. But then, after the Gaels, fellow WCC team Portland (6-2, ranked #70) comes to town next Saturday. All of this over the course of eleven days.
If Denver is any better than 2-8 when December 12 dawns, it will be a small miracle.
So Coach Scott is focusing, for now, on improvements — “the opportunity to get better,” even in losing, as Binghamton’s Macon put it — rather than on results in the win-loss column. Asked yesterday whether he’s seen improvement in the team’s level of physical play, which was sorely lacking in the first four games of the season (the questioner said players had confessed they were “stunned” by the lack of physicality in watching themselves on game film), Scott said he has. “I’m seeing signs of our players individually … starting to come around.” Asked whether players are doing a better job of filling the void left by last year’s star senior, Nate Rohnert, Scott said, “I think that’s still going to be a work in progress. … I think you’re going to see that develop in the month of December.”
As for tonight’s game? “We’re going to be challenged against a very good team and a very good program. So right now, at this juncture, how tough are we going to be, how much are we going to stand up and be ready for that challenge?”
“Utah State’s one of the best programs in the country,” Scott said. “They have been for ten years. Stew Morrill’s a very good coach. And actually, we’re holding that program out as the program we’re trying to become. They’re very good. … They don’t do it with the best players and the best athletes in the country, they do it with the way that they play, the way that he coaches. They’re tough, they’re physical, they do what they do, and they’re extremely good at it, and that’s the kind of program we’re trying to become.”
“We’re not there yet, but we’re playing programs like that because we’re…working hard to become a program like that, and you only get there by playing the good programs and having that experience first-hand. We’re going to get our crack Wednesday night, and we’re going to get our crack all month.”
The results may not be pretty, particularly over the next eleven days. But if Scott continues to see improvement, perhaps there will be some victory in losing.
A few interesting tidbits about tonight’s game:
• This is a potential “trap game” for Utah State, with a huge road test at nationally ranked Georgetown (#16 AP, #14 coaches, #7 RPI, #6 BB State) looming on Saturday. The Aggies might be tempted to look past the Pioneers to the Hoyas. On the other hand, they might be motivated to play better than they did in their worst outing of the season last Saturday, a 56-54 home win over Northeastern in a game Morrill said his team didn’t deserve to win.
• Morrill is, of course, trying to avoid any potential “trap game” mentality for his players, so he’s talking up the Pioneers and harkening back to the Northeastern game: “You look at [Denver's] record and you say they won 17 homes games last year, but they are off to a rough start. They have played some pretty good teams on the road, and they have only played two home games. I think their record is a little deceptive. Right now if our players look at that [Georgetown] game before they look at Denver, they are not very smart based on how they played the other night [against Northeastern].”
• Trap game or no, Utah State will be trying to do a bit of scouting for Georgetown in its game against Denver, as the Salt Lake Tribune notes: the Pioneers “run the Princeton offense, which should help Utah State out against the Hoyas, who run the same base offense.” More specifically, the Utah Statesman, USU’s student paper, notes “that both Denver and Georgetown play a similar type of offensive system,” and “not only is the offensive system similar, but it is a complex system that the Aggies are not very familiar with. ‘They do a great job of running you around and back-dooring you for lay-ups and setting flare screens for jumpers,’ Morrill said. ‘If they get a bunch of lay-ups, they’re probably going to beat you. You really have to adjust your defense to try and guard it. If you play standard defensive rules, they hurt you. … You have to adjust.’”
• Also per the Statesman: “The Aggies and Pioneers have not met since 1978, though we played a home-and-home series every season from 1937 to 1978. The Aggies lead the series 53-34.” Utah State is, of course, a member of the WAC, which Denver will be joining in 2012-13, assuming the conference still exists at that point.
• One more from the Statesman: “Denver only has one win, but decent shooting percentages, some better than ours. Denver is averaging 57.7 points and shooting 43.2 percent from the field, 39.6 percent from three-point range and 75.0 percent at the free throw line. The Aggies are shooting 44.4 percent from the field, 31.9 percent from the three-point line, and 70.4 percent in free throws. We have averaged 70 points per game. USU really needs to step up the free throw shooting.”