Kyle Whelliston’s Mid-Majority — the web’s premier resource for mid-major basketball coupled with random philosophical asides, 1980s references, Super Bowl information-avoidance contests, Tom Petty music, and redheads — has named tonight’s Denver-Florida Atlantic showdown at DU’s Magness Arena the Game! Of! The! Night! in all of mid-majordom, selecting it from among the 45 games being contested by teams from sea to shining sea in college basketball’s 25 below-the-Red-Line conferences. It’s the first time this season that a Sun Belt game has garnered “G!O!T!N!” honors. Whelliston writes:
The Sun Belt. Its massive 2,097-foot footprint brings together a dozen colleges in shared unity and purpose. They are all in the contiguous United States, for instance, and all offer four-year undergraduate degrees. It could be said, also, that the sun shines on all of them… some more than others, and that’s not some vague sports metaphor, I promise you. Despite all the travel, it’s been a fairly stable league this century, and the basketball has featured rising and falling long-distance rivalries. The 2000s began with a Western Kentucky/Louisiana-Lafayette axis, which later became a WKU-USA tandem, and North Texas has snuck in and won two of the last four championships. Right now, the league with no real center has no central struggle. And so tonight, we have a battle of division leaders from either far end, east and west.
The Sun Belt does have star power, and most casual fans know about the men who lead the teams in the league’s southeast corner. Isiah Thomas is getting hurt by the game again at Florida International (9-14, 4-7), putting up the same kind of results that got Sergio Rouco, his less famous predecessor, fired. Mike Jarvis may never get the Saint John’s imbroglio from the mid-2000s out of his first graf, but he’s really coaching the lights out in Boca Raton right now. FAU is 18-7 overall and 10-1 as the Belt’s buckle, and is coming off a tight 73-72 come-from-behind home win over Isiah’s Golden Panthers. The Owls play the best defense in the league (.947 points per trip allowed), and have a sophomore class full of studs like 5-foot-6 Ray Taylor (11.8 ppg, 3.8 apg) that will be producing until the next election cycle. Now all this team needs is a worthy rival.
West leader Denver might be a tough sell, not only because of their 11-12 record (7-3 SBC), but also because they are two time zones and several climate bands away — FAU and Denver only play once a year, at alternating sites. Fortunately for the Pioneers, who have been outscored by 10 points on the way to a 2-7 road record, this game will be at home and at high altitude. With the exception of 2006-07, an irredeemable 4-25 disaster (that included a head coach who simply stopped showing up at work in December), Magness Arena has been a hyper-barbaric chamber for opponents (no more than three losses at home in the past six non-2007 seasons). The oxygen deprivation effects have been quite something: West division second placers Arkansas State lost by 38 last month in Denver but won by 25 in the rematch at Jonesboro last weekend. Joe Scott’s team is first in two-point shooting (54 percent) and has the best general offense in the league (1.09 points per trip in league play), and won nine of 10 in a stretch that featured offense no worse than that sterling 1.09 mark. Slow the pace down (59 possessions, second-slowest in Division I), pick your shot, and nail it. Makes enough sense to me.
Frustratingly, blog mascot DU Bally and I won’t be at the game in person (or “in stuffed basketball,” I suppose), even though it’s pretty clearly the biggest game of the regular season for the Pioneers. Due to a schedule conflict, I need to be at home with the (sleeping) kids, as Becky had pre-existing plans this evening. But I’ll be watching live — I actually upgraded our cable service for the month, ponying up $12 extra for the 111-channel “starter” package instead of the 30-channel “basic” package we regularly get, specifically so I could watch this game on FSN Rocky Mountain — and I’ll be live-tweeting here on Pioneer Pulse and on my @PioneerPulse Twitter account. So, stay with Pioneer Pulse tonight for all of your G!O!T!N! needs!
Just to briefly review the stakes: Denver, after a 6-0 and then 7-1 start in the Sun Belt (which itself followed a disastrous 2-9 start and 4-9 final record in non-conference play), has dropped two straight, both on the road, the last one in humiliating fashion, as Kyle alluded. So the Pios are 7-3, with 3 of their 5 remaining games after this one being on the road — where their only wins are against a then-reeling Western Kentucky team and a conference-worst Louisiana-Monroe team, both just barely. So a loss here would put a (gulp) 9-7 finish very much in play. By contrast, a win would keep the prospect of a regular-season championship and NIT autobid (if they don’t win the SBC tournament in Hot Springs and thus the NCAA autobid) in play, though of course they’d need to win some road games to make that happen. But basically, if Denver beats FAU, they would then need to lose one fewer game than the Owls do for the rest of the season (and finish ahead of all the other teams they presently lead in the standings, natch) to win the conference. By contrast, if Denver loses to FAU, the Owls have the regular-season title pretty much wrapped up, realistically if not quite mathematically.
So… it’s a big game. Not quite as big as if Denver had at least split the road trip to Arkansas, in which case tonight’s winner would effectively take the conference lead now (based on the loss column & tiebreakers, anyway). But still big. A worthy G!O!T!N!, and a huge test for the Pioneers. Let’s go DU!
On another note, I’ve just completed a massive update to my Flickr gallery of photos of DU Bally (who, for any Mid-Majority readers newly sent here by Kyle, is, yes, technically not a Bally, but a BALLZ). It now contains 130 pictures from throughout the season, including the one at above left, and the one below (artsy!) Also: two video clips. Enjoy!
If you don’t want to just scroll through the 8 pages of posts since the season started, here are a few sample posts that TMM readers might enjoy: my DU-North Texas writeup, my DU-Florida International writeup, my DU-Wyoming writeup (back when things looked really bleak for Denver), my article from when DU was 1-5, and, going waaay back, my season preview (and subsequent reconsideration of that preview).