The Big Dance is not part of the equation this year for Northern Colorado, but Jordan Davis and the Bears are still trying to hang a Big Sky banner.
UNC self-imposed penalties stemming from severe NCAA violations under former head coach B.J. Hill during the off-season. The sanctions include a self-mandated postseason ban, meaning Northern Colorado will not be eligible for the Big Sky Conference Tournament in Reno, Nevada in March. The violations led to Hill’s firing and the hiring of Boise State assistant Jeff Linder to lead the Bears out of the darkness.
Although there is no Big Sky Tournament glory to chase nor a chance to advance to the NCAA Tournament as an incentive, the Bears are still eligible to win the Big Sky regular-season title. Banner or not, the Bears will have an impact on the race for seeding. And the first half of the season has yielded some surprising results.
Despite Thursday night’s 89-68 loss to perennial power Montana in Missoula, the Bears enter Saturday’s matchup in sixth place in the 12-team Big Sky. The Bears are 3-2 in league play and 7-9 overall. UNC started off the conference season with a sweep of Sacramento State and Portland State on one of the tougher road trips the conference offers.
“We understand that we can change the Big Sky seeding by beating the top teams or going undefeated or winning games,” said Davis, UNC’s star sophomore point guard. “I want to say we still get a banner if we finish in first. At the end of the day, there’s still a reward to chase so we are just being positive about everything.”
In Linder’s first season, UNC navigated a brutal non-conference schedule that included just three home games admirably. Northern Colorado took its lumps at Butler, Arizona, Oklahoma and Colorado State. The rigors prepared the Bears to post a hard-fought 69-53 win at the Nest in Sacramento two nights before toppling Portland State 73-59. PSU put up 99 points in a 37-point win over North Dakota two nights before losing to the Bears.
“Regardless of if you go to the postseason tournament or not, you are going to face some adversity,” Linder said. “It was disappointing for them to hear but they came out the next day in practice and played their tails off. Even though we can’t play in the tournament, we are trying to build for when we do become tournament eligible, we give ourselves a chance to win the league next year, to win the conference tournament.”
Despite a roster not featuring a single senior a season ago, Northern Colorado experienced as much overturn as any team in the Big Sky in the off-season. Standout veterans Cameron Michael, Jordan Wilson and Dallas Anglin each left the program at varying times before Hill’s termination. Because of the ineligibility, Anthony Johnson, an All-Big Sky selection as a junior last season, and Tanner Morgan, the slated starter at center entering his senior year, chose to redshirt, delaying their final seasons until next winter.
In their absence, Davis has thrived and become one of the Division I leaders in usage rate (amount of time the ball is in his hands). He’s surrounded by shooters, namely Southern Illinois transfer Chaz Glotta and former JC All-American DJ Miles.
On Saturday afternoon, Northern Colorado will look for its fourth Big Sky win over a Montana State team in the midst of a tailspin. The Bobcats have dropped 10 of 11 after Thursday’s 90-85 loss to North Dakota in Bozeman.
“I think sometimes as adults, we worry about things in the future more than the kids,” MSU head coach Brian Fish said when asked about UNC’s ineligibility. “They just line up and play basketball. We try to analyze and overlook things. I think it will hit them March 7 but I don’t think it’s something they are worried about the 14th of January when we play them. The kids just come out and play.”
Northern Colorado fired Hill on April 21 amid swirling allegations of “serious and concerning” NCAA violations in the UNC program. Northern Colorado President Kay Norton said in a news release that upon receiving information about allegations, the university hired an outside law firm to help with an internal investigation.
Sanctions were levied and Hill was fired. In six seasons, the 2011 Big Sky Coach of the Year went 86-98 with two postseason appearances. He led the Bears to the 2011 NCAA Tournament for the first and only time in school history.
Linder came to Northern Colorado after six seasons at Boise State. The well-respected assistant spent the last six seasons at Boise State. Prior to Boise, he spent two seasons on Randy Rahe’s staff at Weber State, so he’s familiar with the Big Sky.
“The way the game has evolved, the league has evolved a little bit too in terms of it’s more guard-oriented, even in the case of playing a team like Montana,” Linder said earlier this week. “In the past, you prepared to really keep the ball from going inside and now it’s a matter of keeping the ball out of the paint with their guards.”
The prediction came true on Thursday as Montana’s star guards Ahmaad Rorie (19 points), Michael Oguine (18) and Walter Wright (16) all scored in double figures and the Griz drilled 15 3-pointers.
Linder is no stranger to talented guards. He has one in Davis, an explosive 6-foot-2 Las Vegas product who is averaging more than 20 points per game while leading the league with 5.7 assists per outing. Linder also helped recruit Damian Lillard to Weber before Lillard went on to become a lottery pick in the NBA Draft, the 2013 NBA Rookie of the Year and a two-time All-NBA performer for the Portland Trailblazers.
“In the Big Sky, there’s definitely a lot of talent and probably more so than when I was first here,” Linder said. “I recruited Lillard and left before he was a freshman. In terms of those higher end NBA-level guys, the league has really seen a rise from a high-end standpoint. With a guy like Lillard or Will Cherry at Montana or (Joel) Bolomboy (Weber State), Tyler Harvey (Eastern Washington) or even the case of a Martin Breunig last year at Montana. He’s a guy who you normally don’t see in this league.”
Linder helped guide Boise State to two NCAA tournament appearances and the team’s first Mountain West Conference Championship during his tenure. Boise State won 20-or-more games in five of Linder’s six seasons.
The Northern Colorado job came open at an unusual time but Linder, a native of Lafayette, Colorado, jumped at the chance to return to the Big Sky despite the sanctions already in place.
“There’s 351 Division I jobs and there some that not even John Wooden could win at,” Linder said. “For me to leave Boise, it had to be a job I felt I could win at and I felt like with what was in place at UNC, I could come in and win the right way with the right type of kids. I think the reason we’ve played the way we’ve played this year is we have guys who are truly good kids.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez or attributed. All Rights Reserved.