Winning the Sun Belt this season in the fourth year of Joe Scott's rebuiding project is a real possibility. After Scott stunned the Ivy League and left his alma mater (Princeton) for the Rocky Mountains, the Pioneers won 11 games in year one, 15 in year two and 19 last season. The Pioneers' Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) ranked at 335 out of 336 the year prior to Scott's arrival, and has shot up from 278 to 224 to 163 a season ago, as they continue to make a slow climb to respectability.
"I know we have to keep winning games, and if you do that people will get to know the program," said Scott, who coached Air Force to its first NCAA bid in 42 years in 2004. "I know being in the WAC or the WCC would help us, and provide an identity that would suit our university. The University of Denver in the WAC makes sense."
Denver can forget about trying to convince the West Coast Conference for membership. The WCC recently added Brigham Young as its ninth member, beginning in 2011-12 when the Cougars go independent in football. WCC commissioner Jamie Zaninovich has made it clear that the conference isn't looking to expand beyond nine members. The nine-team model is the one that the conference presidents and athletic directors have adopted.
BYU's addition gives the league a consistent NCAA tournament program and a fixture in the West. Adding the Cougars is a geographic fit for the WCC, which has schools in Washington, Oregon and California, and like BYU every school is church-affiliated in some fashion. DU is a private school with an 11,000-plus enrollment, but the WCC isn't interested.
If Denver wants to get out of the Sun Belt, a league that is mostly in the Southeast, it must make the full pitch to the WAC.
The hope for the Pioneers is the WAC decides to go with two non-football playing members -- the other being former WCC hopeful Seattle University -- and adds two football playing schools, more than likely Texas-San Antonio and Texas State (unless Montana decides to upgrade its successful football program). Adding two football and two non-football schools would give the WAC 10 members for 2012-13, eight for football. According to a source, the league is also meeting with UTSA, Texas State and Montana on Sept. 28 in Dallas.
The conference will be down one school for certain when Boise State leaves for the Mountain West. The WAC has sued Fresno State and Nevada for not honoring a July 1 date to notify both schools to leave, meaning they must, under WAC bylaws, stay for two more seasons. This is different than the demand that both schools pay $5 million for an agreement to stay in the league for the next five years that the WAC claims is due within 60 days of Aug. 18. The WAC issued a statement last week that the two sides are talking, but the league has told Fresno and Nevada that the departure date is non-negotiable since the remaining six schools can't afford to lose two games off the 2011 football schedule.
The Mountain West is replacing a departing Utah with Boise State, but schools in that conference have been told to hold off on scheduling over the next month, according to a source, as the conference waits to find out if it is one team short for the schedule or suddenly has one too many with the addition of Fresno State and Nevada for 2011.
Denver obviously won't cause football scheduling issues, but it does have to make its case based on its overall programs, its geographic footprint in the area and most importantly that the I-25 corridor is devoid of quality hoops from Wyoming to Colorado to Colorado State to Air Force. The Pioneers have to make the case that they can fill the vacuum and energize the state capital.
"There's a college basketball market here that hasn't been fully tapped," Scott said. "Colorado State, Colorado, Wyoming, everyone is competing for that market and it will go to whoever does well. We've got a great facility and we can grab people's attention."
The hope is that DU can be the city's team, even though the city is full of alumni from a variety of schools. Denver doesn't have alumni in the Sun Belt footprint. It does in the WAC.
Scott, who was loudly criticized for leaving the Tigers in a mess after Princeton finished 2-12 in the Ivy in his third and final season in 2007, could rehab his career if he pulls off an NCAA bid out of the Sun Belt and an invitation to the WAC.
"I don't know if you need to win the league, but I told my team point blank that we've gotten the University of Denver to the point where we can win the league championship," Scott said. "We're not playing for any other reason than to win the Sun Belt regular-season championship. I didn't say that in year one, because if I had everybody would have laughed at me. I didn't say it after year two. But we've gotten better every year, and we won 19 games, and got to the semifinals of the tournament and we've got a lot of guys back. We're at a point with juniors and seniors that we can challenge for the regular-season title."
Denver returns four starters from last season's team, and went 4-2 on a tour of Spain over the summer. Denver has increased its attendance by 35 percent in Scott's four seasons, and will have eight games on television this season and all 29 on radio (small victories for a fledgling program).
Scott said it was relatively easy to go from four wins to 11 and then 11 to 15, but getting from 15 to 19 and beyond is another matter.
"We've gotten respect, but we've got to show improvement," Scott said. "We can't take a step back. Everyone is watching and we have to do it again this year."