Senior Spotlight

PEAK FINALE: Northern Colorado’s Davis dominating in final season with Bears

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Walk into an early-morning practice of the Northern Colorado women’s basketball team, and you’ll see one of the best scorers in the history of Big Sky Conference men’s basketball swiping sweat off the floor and helping the team run through drills.

As part of his sports and exercise science major, Jordan Davis is interning with the women’s team this year, which means that he shows up to the gym at 7 a.m. every morning, just the same as the defending Big Sky Conference women’s basketball champions.

“I think he doesn’t love getting up so early in the morning, so that’s probably been good for him,” UNC women’s coach Jenny Huth said, laughing. “He’s been on time, except for one day he was late, and I got on him about it. But he’s a hard worker.”

For Davis, who wants to coach when his playing career is over, it’s a way to ask questions, gain experience and pick up tips from Huth and her staff.

For UNC men’s head coach Jeff Linder, it’s an easy example of Davis’s work ethic, which has propelled him to be one of the most decorated — and important — players in Northern Colorado history.

He’s stayed with the program through scandal and upheaval, accepted a role change without complaint, and played on some of the most successful teams Northern Colorado has produced.

Northern Colorado senior guard Jordan Davis (0) in 2017/by Brooks Nuanez

This year, the senior guard has closed his career with a flourish, averaging 23.7 points per game, top-10 in the nation, and leading the Bears to a potential regular-season conference championship. During his crescendoing final year, Davis quietly moved past former Big Sky career scoring leader Bogdan Bliznyuk into second on the league’s all-time scoring list, although catching Montana State senior Tyler Hall will likely be impossible.

To Linder, all of Davis’ success is directly symbolized in the fact that Davis is the kind of person who’s willing to show up to a practice that isn’t even his own at 7 a.m. every morning.

“I’m just very fortunate to be able to see him every day,” Linder said. “He’s not looking to cut corners, he’s not looking for favoritism, it’s just all he knows is hard work. And I’ve been fortunate enough to witness that every single day.”

When Davis does finally leave the Big Sky after this year, expect the league’s defenders to breathe a sigh of relief.

For four years, he’s been one of the most feared players in the conference, a slashing combo guard with incredible leaping ability and raw athleticism. He has the explosiveness to get to the rim on anybody and the skill to finish when he gets there, which makes him one of the toughest covers in college basketball.

“He might have the quickest first step in the league, and he’s way stronger than you think,” said Montana senior forward and defensive ace Bobby Moorehead. “But he’s also so tough. And he never stops competing.”

Working in Linder’s offense, which is designed to feature one dominant ball-handler and scorer who usually has one of the highest usage rates in the country, opens up his game even more.

When it all comes together, Davis is a highlight reel unto himself.

In last year’s conference tournament semifinals, he ended up on SportsCenter after posterizing Montana’s Fabijan Krslovic with a massive dunk.

Northern Colorado guard Jordan Davis (0) ESPN Top 10 Sportscenter dunk/by Brooks Nuanez

“I’ve told people before, he’s a miniature Russell Westbrook,” Linder said. “His ability to finish in the lane, not just with dunks, but his ability to finish with both hands in the lane, and then at 6-foot-1, to be able to go and dunk with both hands off both feet, that’s just something you don’t see. I might be biased, seeing that I coach him, but I’m not sure there’s a better point guard in the Western United States this year.

And Linder knows point guards. He was the primary recruiter who helped lure Damian Lillard from Oakland to Weber State.

Davis has not just lived off athleticism on his way to scoring more than 2,200 points. Over his college career, he’s put in the work to round out his game and become a more complete player.

Northern Colorado bench celebrates a Jordan Davis dunk/by Brooks Nuanez

One of the biggest tasks was rebuilding a 3-point shot that, to put it mildly, wasn’t a weapon during his first three years in Greeley.

He shot 31.4 percent from long distance as a freshman, on just over one attempt per game, before dipping under 30 percent in each of the next two years.

In the gym, though, he was putting in the work to make himself a threat from deep.

The results started coming, finally, during UNC’s non-conference schedule this year.

“I think it was right around the time we came back for school to start, we had an open gym session,” Davis said. “Guys respected my jump shot a lot more, guys complimented me a lot more on my jump shot. That let me know that my work was being noticed, that let me know that where I wanted to be as far as my jump shot, I was on the right track to being there.”

This year, Davis is shooting 37 percent from 3, a top-20 mark in the conference, on 4.7 attempts per game — nearly double his previous career-high.

“His whole knock his whole career was his ability to consistently shoot the ball from the outside, and that’s something that he’s just really, really worked on diligently every day since he’s been here,” Linder said. “And I think now, his senior year, you’re seeing that now he’s knocking down shots, he’s knocking down 3s, and so then he just becomes impossible to guard. The knock was that he couldn’t shoot, and his hard work wiped that label away to where now he’s really an elite player.”

Northern Colorado senior guard Jordan Davis (0) vs Montana State in 2017/by Brooks Nuanez

Another example of Davis’s relentless drive to improve is his playmaking.

He had more turnovers than assists as a freshman.

This year, his assist-to-turnover ratio is up to 1.4 — again, the best mark of his career, and top-10 in the conference.

“He had to learn how to pick his spots and how to change speeds, and how to use his eyes in the pick and roll to see how the defense is guarding the ball screen, understand the coverages and then being able to pick the coverages apart,” Linder said. “He’s a guy that, when he’s in the gym by himself or he’s working with a coach, he’s working on all those passes. It’s something that didn’t necessarily come natural for him, but with his hard work, he’s definitely become a guy that has the ability to make all the reads and all the passes in the pick and roll.”

In high school, Davis had to wait his turn. He didn’t make his high school varsity team right away, playing nearly two years of JV ball at Canyon Springs High School in Las Vegas.

When he did get called up to the squad midway through his sophomore year, he took his chance, helping lead the team to consecutive region championships and state semifinal appearances in his junior and senior seasons.

“I think those struggles, me having to work for everything I earned, ultimately made me the hungry, gritty person that you see today,” Davis said. “I’m the kind of person that believes, once you get your opportunity, you run head-first into it and you don’t run from it, you don’t drop the ball when it’s thrown to you.”

Northern Colorado senior guard Jordan Davis (0)/by Brooks Nuanez

That chip on his shoulder carried into recruiting.

Playing in Vegas, he was well-known to coaches around the West — including Linder, then at Boise State — but the majority of his offers were from Big Sky schools.

“I had watched him play in high school, and knew when Northern Colorado signed him that that was a great get for them,” Linder said. “Just kind of knowing his family, his older brother, who was a good player, he was at New Mexico Highlands, we had a good idea of what he could and couldn’t do.”

He originally committed to Eastern Washington, but decommitted soon after.

Then-Bears assistant Joel Davidson and head coach B.J. Hill never stopped recruiting him.

In one particularly memorable instance, Davis recalled Hill showing up at his house at midnight on the first day that coaches were allowed to do in-home visits. That effort eventually won out, and Davis committed to the Bears.

He arrived in Greeley at a tumultuous time for the program. In April of his freshman year, right after he wrapped up his first season averaging 11 points per game, Hill was fired when the university learned of recruiting violations that had taken place under the coach from 2010 to 2014.

Northern Colorado senior guard Jordan Davis (0)/by Brooks Nuanez/by Brooks Nuanez

As a consequence, UNC was also banned from postseason play for one year and suffered a reduction in scholarships for three years.

Often, players will transfer in situations like that. But when Linder came on to take over the program, Davis made it clear that he was still committed.

“We never made excuses about what happened, the sanctions that were imposed,” Linder said. “JD lost a chance to play in the Big Sky tournament. … He’s a very loyal kid, and luckily I had kind of a prior relationship with him to where it was easier to give him an idea of what it was going to be like playing for me. He trusted us.”

The sophomore year, his first under Linder, was Davis’s breakout campaign.

Northern Colorado, with no postseason play to look forward to, finished just 11-18, but Davis scored 19.3 points per game and averaged 5.6 assists as well, the latter still a career-high.

“I mentally had to learn that the things I got away with in high school, because I was faster, more athletic, more skilled than a lot of guys,” David said. “I had to mentally learn that you can’t get away with that stuff at the next level. So, for me, it was, what am I going to do to mentally prepare myself and better myself. I spent a lot of time watching film. I spent a lot of time in the gym, working on making things the perfect way.”

Davis’s breakout sophomore season in 2016-17 left Northern Colorado in an interesting position going into his junior year.

The 16-17 season was also the ineligible year for Linder’s prize transfer, Andre Spight, who came over from Arizona State.

He had scored 6.6 points per game in his one year playing for the Sun Devils. Even during his ineligible year, there were whispers around the league that he might be one of the best scorers in the Big Sky, meaning that Linder had a choice to make — leave the offense in Davis’s hands, or transfer it over to Spight for his senior year, knowing that Davis would have another year after?

Former Northern Colorado guard Andre Spight (11) in 2018/by Brooks Nuanez

“He knew, at the end of the day, for us to be good — and ultimately JD wants to win — he knew that his role was going to change his junior year,” Linder said. “JD wants to win first and foremost, and he knew that whatever he had to do, whatever he had to sacrifice for that to happen, if that meant the ball being in Andre Spight’s hands a little bit more, he accepted that role.”

Davis stepped back a little bit, and Spight went off as the lead ball handler, scoring 855 points in 38 games, the top scoring season in Big Sky history.

Davis still contributed 16.3 points per game to go with Spight’s 22.5, and the Bears had a massively successful season, improving by 15 wins from the year before to go 26-12.

“Our ultimate goal was winning, and I feel like we established that before the year,” Davis said. “Like, at the end of my sophomore year, because me and Dre was really close, we had a sit down and we talked to each other. And we were like, ‘Okay, if this is going to work, we have to make sure we’re on the same page.’ It’s about the team, and it’s not a me-him thing. It was about just being supportive of each other.”

The Bears’ Big Sky run ended with a heartbreaking overtime loss in the conference tournament semifinals to Montana — Spight had 22 and Davis had 18, including the dunk over Krslovic.

Just a few hours later, they were accepting an invitation to the College Invitational Tournament, one of the lower-tier postseason tournaments.

Davis and the Bears regrouped quickly and went on the road to win four straight games in the CIT, including the championship over Illinois-Chicago. It was the first postseason tournament win in Big Sky basketball history.

Northern Colorado senior Jordan Davis (0) backs down Montana senior guard Ahmaad Rorie (14) in 2018/ by Brooks Nuanez

“I felt like the pain we felt from that [Montana] game also allowed us to take it into the CIT and ultimately win,” Davis said. “We got the invite in Reno, the day after…matter of fact, that night they were telling us that we were playing in the CIT. They just didn’t know who we were playing or if we had to travel. We had a team meeting, players-only meeting, and we made it known that if this is what we were going to do, if we have to play in this, we’re playing in it to win it.”

Spight’s historic season was the top factor behind UNC’s historic success, but to people around the Northern Colorado program, Davis showed just as much by being willing to step back and adjust his game for a year.

“It’s not easy to do,” Linder said. “He just had to learn how to play off of Dre, he had to learn how to cut out of the corners. And Dre was such a great passer, in terms of throwing lob passes, but just the ability to play off of Dre, I think that’s what took us, as a team, a little while to figure out. But once we figured that out, we were pretty hard to stop there at the end of the season.”

Observers around the league were impressed as well.

“To me, from the outside looking in, my biggest respect for him is the role he took last year,” Montana head coach Travis DeCuire said. “He was an all-conference player as a sophomore and he went and stood in the corner for a whole season and let somebody else be the guy who dictated the offense, and waited his turn. And now as a senior, he is taking his turn. I think a lot of kids under those circumstances would’ve transferred, but he stayed.

Northern Colorado senior guard Jordan Davis (0)/by Brooks Nuanez

Davis’s loyalty to the program and accomplishments in a Northern Colorado uniform will make him a legend when he leaves Greeley.

His next step is less certain.

At just 6-foot-2, he’ll likely have to show that his shooting gains this year were real to get attention from the NBA.

If not, he’ll certainly find a spot on a roster in the G-League or overseas.

I’ve been thinking about it a little bit, not too much,” Davis said. “I’ve just been locked into this season, and understanding that if I do what I’m supposed to do, that stuff will come. … I’ve just been full-on, mentally, physically, spiritually, emotionally locked into this last ride, but my goal after this season is to play professional ball, whether that’s in the NBA, G-League, overseas, wherever. In my opinion, wherever God takes me, that’s my goal.”

Linder is confident that his star will carve out an opportunity with someone, somewhere. After all, he’s seen him go from an under-recruited high-school player to the likely Big Sky MVP.

“He knows how hard it is and how good you have to be to play in the NBA, but I know that he’s gonna, regardless of if he gets there next year or if he has to work his way back, three or four years, he’s going to prepare himself every day day to give himself an opportunity,” Linder said. “And I know that he’s good enough to give himself that opportunity, and then once he gets that, it’s up to him to make the most of it.”

Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved. 

 

About Andrew Houghton

Andrew Houghton grew up in Washington, DC. He graduated from the University of Montana journalism school in December 2015 and spent time working on the sports desk at the Daily Tribune News in Cartersville, Georgia, before moving back to Missoula and becoming a part of Skyline Sports in early 2018.

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