Coach Joe Scott has Denver program back on track

Feb 19 2012 - 5:48pm

DENVER -- The topic is almost taboo around the Denver Pioneers' practice facility.

For now, anyway.

Bring up the possibility of the Pioneers making the NCAA tournament and coach Joe Scott quashes such talk with a quick wave of his hand.

Sure, it's a realistic notion, but still one that he and his team are not even entertaining.

Not now at least. Still too early and still way too much work to do.

At 19-8, the Pioneers are closing in on a school-record for wins and may even be marching toward their first-ever appearance in the NCAA tournament.

But there are two games remaining in the Sun Belt Conference regular season and then the league tournament, which, in all likelihood, will produce the only team invited to the big dance.

Even his players wince at the words NCAA tournament. It's just not something they want to think about or even dare to imagine.

"It's just too out there," said Scott, who guided Air Force to the NCAA tournament in 2003-04. "We know that's the holy grail, the pie in the sky, the gold at the end of the rainbow. The trick is to get young players who are willing to pour their heart and soul into something not knowing if they're ever going to get the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

"Anybody will put their heart and soul into something if they know they're getting the pot of gold at the end. But if they don't know and they still commit themselves, well, that's special. They're pouring themselves in for the right reasons."

Just five years ago, Scott inherited a four-win squad.

Now, the Pioneers are packing in the fans -- leading the conference in home attendance -- and winning with Scott's twist on the Princeton-style offense. There are no bona fide stars, though sophomore Chris Udofia is rapidly developing into one.

Instead, it's a group of players who fit the system well and know their roles even better.

That's really the secret behind the Pioneers. They're not flashy as much as efficient.

"We're like a team of underdogs," said Udofia, who is averaging a league-leading 15.1 points. "Everybody wants to root for the underdog."

Traditionally, this has been a school known more for its hockey and lacrosse prowess. But hoops has steadily taken its place alongside those winning programs.

The fans are definitely getting into the act as well. In a nationally televised win over Middle Tennessee on Feb. 4, the swim team showed up in Speedos and spelled out, "Welcome to 5280. Got Oxygen??" on their torsos in crimson and gold body paint.

"It's good to have this recognition, for this program and this school," said senior guard Brian Stafford, a co-captain along with forward Rob Lewis. "But still, we like to take it one game at a time, one practice at a time. Let those other things take care of itself."

That is Scott's influence right there, his message seeping in.

Like most coaches, he's all about living in the moment. And also like most coaches, he's trying to get his players to buy into that concept as well.

"Our guys have taken a big step forward," said Scott, whose team finished 7-6 on the road this season after winning just six time away from home in the previous five seasons combined. "They're transforming the program. But we're still in that process."

And yet the Pioneers are closing in on some milestones during this memorable season. Namely, just their second 20-win season on the Division I level.

The last time the Pioneers -- who have also had successful stints on the NAIA and Division II levels -- reached the 20-win plateau was 2004-05 with Rodney Billups, the younger brother of NBA star Chauncey, leading the squad on the floor. But that team didn't win the conference tournament and didn't receive an invitation to the NCAA tournament.

The road into March Madness more than likely goes through their conference tournament since a Sun Belt team rarely receives an at-large pick. The Pioneers are currently second in the West Division behind Arkansas-Little Rock. Middle Tennessee is the top team in the league as the Blue Raiders lead the other side with a 23-4 mark.

The biggest win on Denver's resume was knocking off No. 21 St. Mary's 70-58 in November when the Gaels weren't in the rankings.

"We're playing at a high level this year and have beaten a lot of good programs," Stafford said.

The Pioneers also have dropped quite a few close ones. Of the team's eight loses, four have come in the waning seconds, including two on buzzer-beaters.

"We keep telling them, when you lose at the buzzer, keep looking forward," said Scott, whose squad will bolt for the Western Athletic Conference next season. "Look ahead to the next play, not the play that just happened. If you want to win three games in March on three straight days (at the conference tournament), you need guys that look to the next play."

Sitting courtside after a two-hour practice, Scott stared out at the stragglers who stayed out on the floor for more work.

It was a majority of his team.

Scott motioned in their direction and spoke of their roles in resurrecting the program. They have this team on the cusp of making the NCAA tournament, even if it's almost forbidden to talk about.

"When we're playing our best ball, we can beat just about anybody," Stafford said. "We've seen that recently. We're playing with a lot of confidence right now.

"We'll just see what happens."


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