Before Wednesday night's road test at Utah State, University of Denver coach Joe Scott admits he wasn't sure how good his team was.
Twice the Pioneers had impressed Scott by notching quality home wins against Southern Mississippi and Saint Mary's, but they also got thumped by 21 points last Saturday night at Pac-12 contender Cal.
What Scott learned about Denver after its surprising 67-54 win at Utah State is his team is further along entering December than he expected it to be. The Pioneers snapped the Aggies' 33-game win streak at home, improved to 5-1 this season and further solidified themselves as Sun Belt League contenders in their final year before leaving for the WAC.
"We played really well against Saint Mary's and we went to Cal and we got beat up pretty good, so my thing was, 'What team are we?'" Scott said. "That's why (Wednesday) night's game was so big. Our guys responded really well. In fact, it might have been our best game of the season."
The victories over Southern Mississippi, Saint Mary's and Utah State reflect the progress Denver has made since Scott took over the program in Spring 2007 on the heels of a 4-25 season. The former Princeton guard built the program in the mold of the Pete Carril teams he played for in the 1980s, gradually making Denver competitive again the way he did at Air Force from 2000-04 but could not do at his alma mater from 2005-07.
Whereas last year's Denver team went 4-9 in non-league play before finishing above .500 in the Sun Belt for the first time under Scott, this year's Pioneers have thrived despite another challenging non-league schedule. The difference is the return of fifth-year senior center Rob Lewis, the development of sophomore wing Chris Udofia and the emergence of freshman Royce O'Neale.
In addition to being second on the team in scoring behind senior Brian Stafford at 14.2 points per game, Udofia has averaged 4.3 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 2.8 blocks. Lewis, who hadn't played in 16 months as a result of a back injury, has scored 10 points and grabbed 3.3 rebounds per game to help solidify the frontcourt. And O'Neale has averaged 7.3 points and 4.3 rebounds and shot 41.7 percent from three-point range in the first six games of his college career.
"I knew we'd be better, but you never know when you're counting on freshmen and sophomores," Scott said. "It's funny how it works. Last year we thought we'd be a little better and we stumbled out of the gates. This year, things are going a little bit better for us."
Maybe the biggest test on Denver's schedule will come on Wednesday when the Pioneers host an Iona team headlined by elite point guard Scott Machado, Arizona transfer MoMo Jones and high-scoring forward Mike Glover. Denver also should be tested by Boise State and improved Wyoming prior to conference play.
"Our big point to our players is that those games aren't on our schedule just to be on our schedule," Scott said. "We're playing them to win. I didn't necessarily feel we were going to win all our tough games, but I knew we were better this year. We're older and our ability is a little better. I was just looking for us to compete against programs like that at a higher level."