Northern Colorado feeling no pressure
Team approach works well as Bears prepare for first NCAA bid
Bad doesn’t come close to describing what life was like for Northern Colorado five years ago. Horrible isn’t a strong enough word either.
You see, when you win just four games and lose 24 times, frustration sets in. Sometimes, the misery even plants doubt in the mind of a player, forcing him to question his decision to play basketball at a place like Northern Colorado.
“After that first season, I wasn’t sure if this was the place for me,” senior redshirt forward Neal Kingman said. “But I decided to stick around and I take a lot of pride in being able to help turn things around here.”
And what a turnaround it has been.
The Bears are the champions of the Big Sky Conference for the first time in school history and are headed to the NCAA tournament for the first time since making the jump to Division I. They will face San Diego State today in the opening round of the tourney at the McKale Center in Arizona.
It has been a remarkable journey for Northern Colorado, which is 21-10 and riding the high of a 65-60 win against Montana in the conference tournament championship game. Kingman can’t help but think back to how much that terrible 2006-07 season helped drive this team to defy odds and turn heads.
“That (4-24) season was zero fun but we still use it as inspiration,” Kingman said. “We’ve been fortunate to have great coaches and great players, and we have put in a lot of hard work to get here.”
Few people expected this day to come so soon.
Yet, there the Bears were on Selection Sunday, gathered around a big screen television for an NCAA tourney watch party, surrounded by the fans who have supported them along the way and overwhelmed with joy when they saw their name flash on the screen as the 15th seed in the West Region.
“It’s been crazy,” senior forward Chris Kaba said. “We’ve gotten a lot of publicity and coverage. It’s been a lot of fun but now we have another game to get ready for. We are not satisfied with just being in the tournament.”
Northern Colorado head coach B.J. Hill never stopped believing in his team. He was an assistant for four seasons before taking over as the head coach this year when Tad Boyle left to coach Colorado.
“Everyone dreamed of this moment five years ago,” Hill said. “It’s a culmination of the blood, sweat and tears we have put into the program.”
Northern Colorado was 25-8 last season, and while it fell short of its quest of playing in the NCAA tourney, it believed this could be the year it finally made that dream come true.
“We were close last year, and we felt like we had a chance to capitalize on a great opportunity this year,” Kaba said. “We’re happy with where we are right now, but we aren’t satisfied with the success.”
Talent and teamwork have put the Bears in a position to make the most of the season.
There is no question that redshirt senior guard Devon Beitzel is the go-to guy for the Bears. He lit up the Grizzlies for 27 points in the Big Sky tourney title game to earn MVP honors, and is pouring in 21.4 points per game on the season.
But the Bears are far from being a one-man show. Kingman is clicking for 10.6 ppg and Kaba is dropping in 9.5 points per outing. Four other players are averaging at least five points.
As a team, the Bears are scoring 72.2 ppg and allowing 65.7.
“We are very unselfish,” Hill said. “The players are focused on executing game plans and finding ways to win. Devon has been the star, but we have a lot of other guys who can make plays and hit big shots. We wouldn’t be where we are today without a good team effort.”
There was a stretch this season where Northern Colorado seemed to be on the cusp of falling apart. The Bears suffered through a four-game losing streak in early December that included an 86-76 loss to Illinois on the road.
It certainly tested the mental toughness of the Bears but did not break them.
“The big thing is that we stuck together,” Kaba said. “No one complained. We just kept playing hard and got back on track.”
Northern Colorado has won its last seven games and will be up against an Aztecs team that could make a serious run at the Final Four.
Hill doesn’t dodge the fact that his team is in for quite a challenge today.
“They have a team with NBA talent. The last time I checked, we didn’t have any guys that will probably play in the NBA," Hill said. "But this team has never backed down from a challenge. We respect the heck out of San Diego State, but we also believe we can compete with them.”
The players won’t disagree with their coach.
“All of the pressure is on them,” Kingman said. “We will play hard and let the cards fall where they may. If it get us a win, that is great. If we lose, at least we can walk away knowing we gave it our all.”
Kaba points out that when you have been through a season full of misery, facing one of the elite teams in the nation doesn’t seem like such a big deal.
“We have been through tough times, so we have nothing to fear going into the game,” Kaba said. “We have talent on our team and we believe we can at least give ourselves a chance to win.”