GRAND JUNCTION, Colo.—A year ago, Mike DeGeorge’s Colorado Mesa University basketball team was three hours into a 580-mile bus trip to the NCAA Division II National Tournament when the bad news arrived.
COVID-19 had shut down the event.
Fast forward to 2021 and DeGeorge has a team that even a pandemic can’t slow down. Colorado Mesa is 21-1 and ranked No. 1 in the nation heading into regional play in Golden, Colo., this weekend.
Despite having some injuries, an All-American type player grounded by grades and two others opting out due to COVID concerns, the Mavericks picked up where they left off a year ago.
“The way last season ended was obviously disappointing and we didn’t know what this season was going to look like,” DeGeorge said. “Our league and our institution have done a great job managing COVID. We haven’t had a positive (virus) test since Halloween so we’ve been able to play pretty much a full schedule, with only a couple of opponents cancelling on us. This group has really come together.”
The son of longtime Beloit College football coach Ed DeGeorge and brother of current AD Dave DeGeorge, Mike was a successful head coach at Eureka College, Cornell College and Rhodes College before taking the job at Colorado Mesa three years ago. His first team was 19-10 and his second 21-10.
While those teams were known for their offensive prowess, this year’s Mavericks are efficient on both ends.
“We’re very athletic and we can get up and down the floor,” DeGeorge said. “Our bigs are mobile and our guards are quick. We have length everywhere and we swarm defensively because we guard off the dribble. After having one of the leading offenses in the country the previous two years, this group has really bought into our defensive concepts and it’s been our calling card.”
With five freshmen who’ve turned out to be fabulous in their nine-man rotation, the Mavericks cruised to an 11-0 record. A 78-72 speed bump loss at West Colorado followed, but they’ve won 10 straight since then.
“When we played West Colorado we had kind of plateaued,” DeGeorge said. “The loss actually did us some good. We got to another level after losing.”
The Mavericks defeated the team that will host the regional, Colorado School of Mines, twice.
“They predetermined the (regional) sites because of COVID and at the time (School of Mines) was No. 1,” DeGeorge said. “When we played there we were down pretty much the whole game, but came back and won (64-58) at the end. At our place we forced a five-second call with 30 seconds to go and then hit a three to send it into overtime where we won it (75-74). So if we meet again, it’s going to be a challenge.
“We’re just going to compete and see how far we can go. They don’t give up. We have been down in a lot of games. We’ve played in six overtime games and won them all. It’s a little hard to know about some of these teams because they haven’t played as many games and some of the teams are just playing in their own conference so it’s difficult to get a comparison on how people stack up.”
DeGeorge has kept his eye on one particular D-II team though and is not even in his regional: ninth-ranked 21-2 Hillsdale College of Michigan which is headed to the Atlantic Regional. That team is coached by 1991 Beloit College alum John “Roundy” Tharp, who has 454 career coaching wins.
DeGeorge, who had been on two Midwest Conference champions as a Monmouth College graduate, went on to serve as an assistant under Tharp from 1994-99 at Lawrence University.
“If we both win two games we could each wind up in the Elite 8,” DeGeorge said. “Roundy now has over 400 career wins. I can remember when (Bill) Knapton won his 500th at Beloit and we thought that was the craziest thing ever.”
No matter what happens the rest of the way, DeGeorge doesn’t’ see himself looking to make a move.
“I’m a Division III guy who is fortunate to be where I am,” he said. “I’m not interested in going anywhere else. I really like the kids and the region.”
Next year’s team looks stacked. Everyone playing this season has been granted an extra season of eligibility by the NCAA. From his nine-man rotation, DeGeorge said he will have one senior who will graduate, but two who will come back next season, plus a sophomore and the five freshmen.
“Since we’re winning we’re drawing even more recruits to us,” he said. “The one thing about our area is that we’re on the other side of the mountains from Denver. It’s about 150,000 people and we are the biggest show in town. We’re on the radio, in the newspaper and on TV. The community really follows us so it has a Division I feel to it. Things are going well here.”