Game Notes: Western Kentucky at University of Denver
A Sun Belt clash to remember.
by Cub Buenning / @cubbuenning
The world of college athletics is full of geographic anomalies. For one more year, the University of Denver Pioneers will ply their hardcourt trade in Sun Belt Conference. Next year, they will trade Louisiana-Lafayette and South Alabama for the likes of New Mexico State and Idaho, as the team makes the natural move into the Western Athletic Conference.
In the meantime, though, the program at the southern tip of downtown Denver is enjoying one of its most successful seasons in its brief time as a Division-I program. At 13-4 and with solid wins already over the likes of Saint Mary’s and future WAC neighbor/rival from Utah State, the Pios are in position to threaten for their first trip to the NCAA tournament.
On Sunday afternoon, in a beautiful on-campus facility that is also home to the seven-time national champion DU hockey program, the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers made their final conference trip to the Mile High City. A perennial tournament team that has several signature wins over the past decade, WKU has fallen on hard times, as of late. They have already gone through an in-season coaching change and with just five wins to date, the program produced Houston Rocket Courtney Lee looks like a shell of its former self.
—DU sophomore Chris Udofia is long, rangy and has a deceptive first step from the perimeter. In his second season in Denver, the 6-6 Dallas-area product has become the team’s best all-around player, capable of filing a stat sheet. He has spring off the bounce, can find the open spots on the floor and is tenacious on the defensive end.
—I am very curious about WKU freshman guard Derrick Gordon. The 6-2 Jersey product that played his prep ball at the legendary St. Patrick HS, Gordon has enjoyed instant success, in just his first couple months of collegiate basketball. He leads WKU in most categories (points, rebounds, assists). Gordon has the physical tools to be a big-time player at this level and most visually striking is the wing-span. With time and on-ball experience, this is a kid that might find a professional home as a point guard in the NBA.
—A rough start for the visitors, as the Hilltoppers proceed to miss their first seven shots from the field. Compounded by the fact that the Pios are coached by Princeton disciple Joe Scott and employ the famous patient offensive attack, making the visitors work extra hard on the defensive end.
—The Pioneers have had three possessions in the game’s first ten minutes where they ran off the entire shot clock (running those back-door cuts and dribble hand-offs), culminating in a bucket as the clock expired.
—All of this leads to an early 23-3 advantage for DU.
—In just a few minutes of action, I am also very impressed with my first live viewing of Denver freshman, Royce O’Neale. The 6-5 wing will pair nicely with Udofia for the next couple years.
—Things have not improved much for the Hilltoppers. At the under-four media break, DU leads 31-10. Like most Princeton-style offenses, everyone can shoot from the perimeter, everyone is comfortable in the post and all play with an all-court awareness.
—“We aren’t in Kentucky” moment for Hilltopper guard O’Karo Akamune. With one minute to go in the first half, the Miami-native hits the oxygen mask on the bench.
—Trying hard not to use this expression for teams from Kentucky, but the visitors have officially had their barn doors blown off. DU is hitting everything in sight (6-10 from 3-pt in first half) and have forced the Hilltoppers into a miserable shooting half.
—Halftime! Denver 43 Western Kentucky 16. No joke. Seven Pioneers have scored at least 4 points and Udofia already has 11 and 7.
—This Western Kentucky team has some pieces, but they just seem disjointed and have little chemistry as a team.
—As I type that last sentence, the visitors start hitting shots. Interim head coach Ray Harper, has been playing 10 guys all day and this second half his substitution patterns are working at every level. Unfortunately, his team was down 27 at half.
—Despite the fury of offense that WKU is putting forth, not much has changed for Denver, as they continue to score.
—WKU’s Gordon never really gets involved in the game, making it tough to make a full judgment on his talent going forward. In addition, he is never really allowed to run the team and play the role of point guard, which will be his eventual position at the next level.
—There has been some talent on this Denver roster in the past decade, but I strongly feel that this is the most complete team ever assembled. They have experience, speed, long-range shooting, strength and youth. They are really just lacking height. A Yemi Nicholson type player (look it up) would be the cherry on top.
—DU’s roster is made up almost entirely of local kids and those from Texas. The Hallam brothers (Mesquite) have started a trend and were actually instrumental in bringing Udofia (Irving) to the Mile High City. For the record, the O’Neale kid is from Kileen. Scott has a nice little pipeline from a talent-rich hotbed of prep hoops.
—Western Kentucky is scrapping closer and closer in this game, but the end result is never really in doubt. The locals here in Denver could easily equate the 49-point 2nd half by WKU to just another Kyle Orton 300-yard game in a losing effort.
—Akamunue is back on the oxygen. For a native like myself, I can speak to the reality that is the high-altitude difference. Yes, I’ve felt it before, but honestly, there might be more myth than actual science to the advantage that teams from altitude have enjoyed.
—O’Neale with an emphatic And-1 dunk in the game’s final minutes. Don’t remember seeing a lot of that type of ball being played around these parts. This team will lose some important pieces to graduation next year, but the future looks bright with freshmen O’Neale, last year’s Colorado State POY Brett Olson and the sophomore Udofia.
FINAL: 78-65. Udofia finishes with 20 (8-12) and 11 boards. Senior leader Brian Stafford has his usual 15 and O’Neale gets 16 on just 6 shot attempts. WKU featured three guys scoring double figures, with guard TJ Price leading the way with 12.