The atmosphere will be a little different — a little more intense, regardless of what University of Denver men’s basketball coach Joe Scott preaches.
The unyielding glare from the added glut of cameras will be difficult to miss. As will the familiar faces of the talking heads who will be reporting the action courtside. And, if all goes according to plan, there will be a vibrant atmosphere within Magness Arena as Pioneers fans look to show the country what the excitement is all about in the Mile High City.
Scott promised to bring big-time college basketball to DU when he arrived prior to the 2007–08 season, and on Saturday part of that dream will be realized in front of a national audience as the Pioneers take on Sun Belt Conference rival Middle Tennessee in a showdown that will be broadcast live on ESPN2.
The national television appearance is a reward for the Pioneers’ strong start, but it also is an opportunity to showcase a team making a strong push toward a postseason bid. Just don’t tell that to Scott. Although DU is enjoying its best run during his five seasons at the helm, Scott has been busy repeating his take-it-a-game-at-a-time mantra. And he does not want that to change just because the spotlight is suddenly growing brighter.
“I’ve been stressing it all year—don’t get too high, don’t get too low,” Scott says. “In this sport, within one game you have good times, you have bad times. You’re going to have good games; you’re going to have not-so good games. You can’t get concerned with that. You have to move on to the next game. You have to move on to the next play within a game. You have to move on to the next shot. And you can’t concern yourself with anything that might happen in the future. It doesn’t matter.”
ESPN decided to air the DU-Middle Tennessee tilt in part because the clubs arguably have been the most consistent performers in the Sun Belt.
Middle Tennessee has led the league’s East Division throughout the season, beginning the week with a 20-3 overall mark and an unblemished 9-0 conference mark that has given the Blue Raiders a comfortable cushion atop the East Division.
Despite a second loss in three games last Saturday at Arkansas-Little Rock, DU remains in the thick of the West Division race with UALR, North Texas, and Louisiana-Lafayette. All four teams started the week within one game of each other in the six-team division. The Pioneers have shuttled in and out of the Collegeinsider.com mid-major top 25 poll and this week are ranked atop the “others receiving votes” category, which essentially means DU is ranked 26th in the nation among mid-major programs.
Saturday’s nationally televised match will be DU’s third contest against teams ranked in the top 10 of this week’s mid-major poll. Early in the season, DU suffered home losses against No. 3 St. Mary’s and No. 9 Iona, which needed a late comeback and overtime before finally dispatching the Pioneers. Middle Tennessee is ranked sixth.
“That’s why we came here—to play in big games that put Denver basketball on the map in some ways,” senior guard Brian Stafford says. “We’re excited for that. We haven’t worried about that at all at this point. It’s just going to be like any other game. We’re going to prepare the same way and hopefully give our best effort.”
While the Pioneers remain focused on larger prizes, such as the Sun Belt crown and a potential postseason appearance, Saturday’s appearance on ESPN2 nevertheless will be a crowning moment for a program that has slowly battled its way into national relevance.
“Obviously it’s the first time it’s happened since I’ve been here,” senior forward Rob Lewis says. “It’s amazing to see the progression from the first year we were here, and there was no chance we would ever be on ESPN, to now where we’re contending at the top of the division. ESPN and other national outlets have recognized that. It’s cool. It feels good that the hard work has paid off.”