University of Denver Pioneers Basketball: Early Spoiler in NCAA Men's Division I

Marco CummingsContributor IINovember 30, 2011

Could a game played at Magness Arena actually have an effect on this year's NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament?
Could a game played at Magness Arena actually have an effect on this year's NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament?

Are the University of Denver Pioneers one of this season’s biggest sleepers in NCAA men’s basketball?

After a 4-0 start to the season, which included a 70-58 victory over perennial juggernaut St. Mary’s, a lot of people would like to think so.

But, things have seemingly settled down after an 80-59 loss to Cal. Needless to say, the Pioneers' effort against big-time programs could turn out to be an indicator of how well they will do in conference play this season—Denver’s final season as a member of the Sun Belt Conference.

Two huge components of the Pioneers' recent success have been senior guard Brian Stafford and sophomore forward Chris Udofia. Both are leading Denver in scoring this season, with Stafford averaging 14.8 points per game and Udofia not far behind at 14.

Udofia has been a defensive stalwart as well, with 17 blocked shots up to this point.

Helping with the defensive effort of the Pioneers is the ball-hawking Chase Hallam, who enters tonight’s game with 10 steals.

Tonight’s road game against the Utah State Aggies (7 p.m. MDT) will equally serve as an indicator of the Pioneers’ future as a program because this game will be a conference rivalry when Denver enters the WAC in 2012.

Utah State may have just one more loss than Denver at 3-2, but they will be a very tough team, having played in the arguably tougher conference.

That’s exactly what head coach Joe Scott and the Pioneers seem to be hoping for, as the program’s urge to be competitive in the long-term has not only prompted the conference change, but also one of the hardest schedules DU has put together in years.

Having already played Cal and St. Mary’s, the Pioneers men’s basketball team still has yet to face local rival Division I teams such as Wyoming, Northern Colorado and Colorado State.

Northern Colorado and CSU have already entered into NCAA Tournament discussions as recently as last year, so how Denver plays against these in-state programs will be a valuable gauge as to where the team stands competitively.

But for now, Denver is still a member of the Sun Belt Conference and shouldn’t be looking too far into the future. Conference play will begin Dec. 29 for the Pioneers when they begin a four-game stretch of Sun Belt games starting with the hosting of Troy at Magness Arena.