After a one-year layover in the shape-shifting Western Athletic Conference, Denver's conference sojourn has arrived in the Summit League. There are some similarities, as well as some differences, to Denver's moves and those made recently by UNO.
Now the Pioneers are set to send out a men's basketball team capable of competing for a conference championship.
“We're used to this type of challenge,” Denver coach Joe Scott said Wednesday, during the Summit's annual basketball media day teleconference. “And what it does for you is put you in the frame of mind to concentrate on yourself first. You can't worry about where you're playing or who you are playing.”
There are some similarities, as well as some differences, to Denver's moves and those made recently by UNO.
The Mavericks' three-year journey took them from the Division II Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association, to more or less independent status with a mixed schedule of Division I and small-school foes, to last year's first full trip through the Summit.
Denver, meanwhile, has been in three Division I conferences, from the Sun Belt to the WAC and now to the Summit.
“Once you're in a league, then year after year you see a style of play, you see the level of the players, you understand how you're going to guard certain things and how you're going to attack certain things,” UNO coach Derrin Hansen said. “You're going to the same arenas. So in some sense there's a comfort level.
“Now, you've still got to battle every night.”
Scott said the Pioneers, led by player of the year candidate Chris Udofia, get that.
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“We know from playing in three leagues in three years that it's all about having a healthy respect, and a dislike at the same time, for every opponent,” Scott said. “Every game is difficult. You have to be really tough.
“The league you're in is the best in the country — that's how you have to approach it. If you approach it that way, that's the only way you can get to where you want to be at the end of the year. We have a ton of respect for the Summit League, for its coaches and players.”
Denver went 22-10 last season, won a share of the WAC regular-season championship and lost to Maryland in the second round of the NIT. The Pioneers are picked to finish second in the Summit, behind North Dakota State, which returns nearly its entire roster from the third-place team that finished one game behind the league leaders.
“Their level of talent is very good,” said Hansen, whose Mavs lost at Denver 82-47 last season in a nonconference game. “On paper they're one of the top two or three teams in our league. … Obviously they're in better position than we were last year (going into the Summit) as a team in its second year transitioning from Division II. They are a prominent mid-major team. I don't think they have a steep hill to climb, but it will take some extra time for their staff and players as they see each (Summit) team for the first time.”
Denver is the preseason No. 9 team in the CollegeInsider.com mid-major top 25, behind No. 7 North Dakota State. It's the first time in league history the Summit has had two preseason top-10 teams.
South Dakota State, which lost player of the year and NBA draft pick Nate Wolters, didn't draw any interest from voters in the mid-major poll, but returns most of the rest of its roster from its co-champion and NCAA tournament team and is the expected front-runner for third.
The fourth through eighth spots appear up for grabs, with co-champion Western Illinois — coached by defensive-minded Jim Molinari — picked fourth in the preseason poll.
“Don't sleep on Western Illinois,” North Dakota State coach Saul Phillips said. “I think Coach Mo could put one athletic center and four folding chairs out there and hold you to 50 points.”
UNO is picked fifth, but may not have all-league wing Justin Simmons for the final nine games because of an ineligibility issue. Indiana-Purdue-Fort Wayne, picked sixth, lost high-scoring Frank Gaines. South Dakota has four starters back, but coach Dave Boots retired this fall and was replaced by interim coach Joey James (the former Bellevue West star). IUPUI was an injury-riddled last-place team last year, but has its players healthy plus some impressive newcomers.
“The Summit League, year after year, there's a lot of focus on the top two or three teams and everyone else is supposed to be fighting for the next tier,” Phillips said. “And every year someone else climbs toward the top. But it's really hard to forecast which team that's going to be.”