Only one time in history has the NCAA Division II No. 1 men’s basketball team visited Whalen Gymnasium on the Fort Lewis College campus in Durango. That is, until Friday night.
Fort Lewis College (5-5, 4-5 Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference) will welcome top-ranked Colorado School of Mines (10-0, 9-0 RMAC) at 7:30 p.m. Friday. Because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, fans will not be permitted inside Whalen Gymnasium.
“There are no rah-rah speeches from the coaches. The players understand who they’re playing,” FLC head coach Bob Pietrack said. “It’s a bit of a different scenario because there’s no crowd. If we were playing this game on a Friday night in February with the No. 1 team in a normal year, we would have 2,300 fans in the building. We won’t have that. But we’re playing for the joy of playing and the beauty of competition. Any time you get a chance to test yourself against the No. 1 team in the country, it’s just fun to see where you’re at versus where they are.”
FLC previously hosted No. 1 Metro State on Feb. 22, 2013. The Skyhawks, with Pietrack serving as associate head coach to Bob Hofman and current associate head coach Daniel Steffensen a graduate assistant for FLC, were able to beat the Roadrunners that night 61-54 to avenge a six-point loss, 71-65, on the road to Metro State in Denver a month earlier. Metro State would go on to finish as the national runner-up that season.
Much like 2013, the 2021 Skyhawks will look to avenge a six-point loss, 79-73, suffered Dec. 19 in Golden against the Orediggers, which were ranked No. 5 at the time. Mines remained No. 1 in the NABC Division II coaches poll this week for a fifth consecutive week.
“It’s something we haven’t talked about much. You don’t want to get too up or too down before the game. You save all the energy for the game itself,” Pietrack said. “When you’re part of a team, there’s some unspoken languages. We were disappointed losing in Golden and disappointed losing to (previously sixth-ranked) Colorado Mesa in a couple of really close games. But you get up the next day and the sun comes out and new opportunities come to present themselves. This is an opportunity for us to see where we are and how much growth we’ve had.”
In the Dec. 19 loss in Golden, FLC was neck-and-neck with the Orediggers the entire game despite being without Steffensen’s assistance on the bench. The lead changed hands 21 times before Mines pulled away down the stretch behind 31 points for Brendan Sullivan, who went 10-of-14 shooting and 10-of-13 at the foul line.
While Sullivan, arguably the RMAC Player of the Year for his performances thus far on the league’s top team, FLC preseason All-American senior forward Riley Farris had a relatively cold night despite scoring a team-high 22 points. He missed three consecutive shots with the game as close as 70-69, and he finished only 5-of-17 shooting.
FLC will look for a similar recipe to stay in the game late and hope those kind of shots fall this time at home.
“With Mines, it’s like a boxing match. You don’t want to get knocked down early,” Pietrack said. “You want to get a feel for how the game is going to go in the first eight minutes or so, make sure you survive them and get a feel and your feet under you. You want to get the game stretched out like we did in Golden. So many teams have played Mines and it’s like a Mike Tyson fight, so to speak. They just nail you so that you’re never really in it and are playing catchup the whole time. That is very difficult against a team of their caliber. You have to get off to a solid start, be in it and get into the second half and see if we can get a little Whalen magic down the stretch.”
Mines boasts the best defense in the nation. It has held opponents to 59.9 points per game while it has scored 76.9 points per game for the nation’s best differential (17). FLC is second in the RMAC in scoring at 80.4 points per game. FLC and Black Hills State are the only teams to score more than 70 points against Mines all season, as the Yellow Jackets fell 85-83 in overtime at home on Jan. 4.
The Orediggers have played only twice since that road win with nine of their last 11 games postponed or canceled because of COVID-19 issues. That includes a highly-anticipated matchup with No. 8 Colorado Mesa University, which has now twice been postponed. FLC fell to the Mavericks 74-72 on Jan. 29 in a game in which it did not have Farris.
The last time Mines played, it was an 84-52 blowout of Regis on Feb. 1.
FLC is coming off a busy week in which it played three road games in six days, going 2-1 on the trip. FLC fell 84-79 on Monday on tired legs at CSU-Pueblo. Pietrack gave the team Tuesday off to recover before one practice Wednesday and a light practice Thursday.
Home in a conference game for only the fourth this time season after having five home conference games postponed already, FLC is hungry to continue its strong run of play while chasing one of the eight RMAC conference tournament positions. FLC is currently ninth in the standings in terms of winning percentage.
Farris leads the RMAC in scoring at 23.4 points per game while shooting 52.9%. He is also fourth in rebounding with 7.5 per game to lead FLC. His 3.9 assists per game also lead FLC and rank third in the conference. Doing it all, Farris also leads the RMAC with 15 blocked shots in only eight games played.
Sullivan is seventh in RMAC scoring at 18.8 points per game, and he is sixth in shooting percentage at 58.6%. Point guard Kolbi Betts ranks in the top 25 at 11.9 points per game. Austin Means leads Mines in rebounding at 6.1 per game and has averaged 1.2 blocked shots per game.
“Everything starts and stops with Sullivan,” Pietrack said. “Last time, he was special and we didn’t do a great job on him. He will get the proper attention from us and see if we can’t keep him closer to his average instead of giving up 30.
“And when you talk about Mines, Betts is, if not the best, right up there with the best guards in the league. They are lethal at the guard spot, and you have to compete well with them. We have to make more outside shots against them than we did last game when we only made 2-of-12 from 3. Our guards have to hold their own.”
Behind Farris, FLC has received 10.7 points per game from senior wing Will Wittman and 10 per game from junior forward Brenden Boatwright, who shined against Mines earlier this season and has excelled on both ends of the floor during FLC’s last five games. He has averaged 4.3 rebounds per game and has become renowned for his ability to draw multiple charges per game.
FLC sophomore guard Akuel Kot has caught fire of late and has averaged 9.8 points per game. FLC will need guards Corey Seng, Cesar Molina and Dunnell “Scottie” Stafford all to have big nights defensively against Mines’ taller guards.
It will be another big showdown between Mines head coach Pryor Orser, now in his 20th season, and FLC’s Pietrack and Steffensen. The two sides have squared off with conference championships on the line in recent years in a match of two of the best coaching staffs in all of Division II basketball.
“We have championship coaches on both sidelines. Obviously, Pryor Orser and Brad Schick do an unbelievable job, and Orser is a hall of fame coach,” Pietrack said. “For coach Steff and I, it’s no different. You’re gonna get another team well coached that won’t make mistakes. In games like this, you prepare your team the best you can knowing you have to play close to mistake free. It’s a fun challenge. We’ve struggled of late against Mines, but we’re not the only ones. The whole league has.
“We have confidence in what we’re doing and the direction we’re going. They’re the cream of the crop of our league, and we’re trying to get ourselves back to that level.”