Today’s unexpected and heartbreaking home loss to South Alabama, in which Denver blew a 15-point lead, badly damaged the Pioneers’ hopes of winning the Sun Belt West Division, and put at risk their chances of finishing in the Top 2 and thus earning a bye to the conference tourney quarterfinals in Hot Springs next month.
The defeat dropped DU into a three-way tie for first place, and now the pressure is on this 2-8 road team as they finish the regular season at red-hot Louisiana-Lafayette (9 straight wins) and conference nemesis North Texas this coming Thursday and Saturday.
So what are the scenarios for Denver?
Let’s start with the standings right now, with each team’s remaining games.
Denver (9-5) at ULL 2/24, at UNT 2/26
Arkansas State (9-5) vs. UNT 2/24, vs. UALR 2/26
Louisiana-Lafayette (9-5) vs. Denver 2/24, at ULM 2/26
Arkansas-Little Rock (7-6) at USA 2/24, at ArkSt 2/26, vs. UNT 3/1
North Texas (6-7) at ArkSt 2/24, vs. Denver 2/26, at UALR 3/1
Louisiana-Monroe (2-13) vs. ULL 2/26
Obviously, tiebreakers come heavily into play here. The good news for Denver is that many scenarios would ultimately be decided by Tiebreaker B, “division won-lost record,” and Denver’s got a better intradivisional record than its competitors in most scenarios. So the Pioneers would do quite well in most tiebreaker situations.
I won’t bore you with the gory details, but here’s the bottom line, according to my calculations:
If Denver wins both games: It clinches the #1 seed.
If Denver beats Lafayette, loses to North Texas: Denver clinches at worst the #2 seed. For the #1 seed, Arkansas State must lose at least one of its remaining games (vs. North Texas and vs. UALR, both at home).
If Denver loses to Lafayette, beats North Texas: For Denver to get the #1 seed, Lafayette must lose to Monroe and Arkansas State must lose at least once. For Denver to get the #2 seed, one of those two things must happen.
If Denver loses both games: The Pioneers can’t finish with the #1 seed, but they’re still mathematically alive for #2, in one narrow scenario. All of the following would need to happen: South Alabama beats UALR on Thursday; North Texas wins at Arkansas State on Thursday; UALR wins at Arkansas State on Saturday; and UALR beats North Texas on Tuesday, March 1.
So basically, a Denver win on Thursday over Lafayette would clinch the #2 seed for the Pioneers, and give them a pretty decent shot at the #1. A loss to Lafayette probably puts #1 out of reach (since Lafayette is unlikely to lose to Monroe), but #2 is still possibly within reach (depending on what Arkansas State does), if the Pioneers can turn around and beat North Texas on Saturday. If they can’t, and instead get swept on another road trip, that would likely (though not 100% certainly) doom Denver has to play a first-round game in the SBC tournament, instead of getting a bye into the quarterfinals.
Getting swept on the road would also mean a 9-7 conference finish for Denver, after a 6-0 and 7-1 start, and an overall regular season record of 13-16, likely requiring a Sun Belt championship to claw back to .500 on the year. (A four-game run to the championship would put them at 17-16. A loss in the First Four in Dayton would drop them to 17-17; a win in Dayton followed by a loss to a #1 seed in the Round of 64 would put them at 18-17. Alternatively, a loss in the Sun Belt final would make them 16-17, but a CIT and CBI invite and a pair of wins could get them back to .500. But would the CIT or CBI invite a 16-17 team?)
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