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Undersized Northern Colorado beating up on bigger Big Sky opponents

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The 2012-13 season was a tough one for the Northern Colorado Bears as they finished the season with a 13-18 record, the second consecutive year in which the Bears finished below .500. With five players who possessed starting experience returning there was the expectation that the Bears could be a factor in the Big Sky race, but for all that experience and talent Northern Colorado wasn’t going to reach that potential without changing their mindset.

That was especially true on the defensive end of the floor.

Northern Colorado finished the 2012-13 season ranked eighth in the Big Sky in field goal percentage defense (46.0% in league games) and ninth in adjusted defensive efficiency per kenpom.com, numbers that are too high for a team with hopes of contending. And through 13 games the Bears have made progress defensively, ranking second in the Big Sky in both field goal and three-point percentage defense and first in adjusted defensive efficiency. The result: a 10-3 overall record and a 4-0 start to Big Sky play.

“We had to make some personnel changes,” Northern Colorado head coach B.J. Hill told NBC Sports. “We had some guys in the program who weren’t about the identity we were trying to establish. So we went out and tried to find guys that we thought would take [our identity], and so far they have.”

Among the newcomers are freshman guard Jordan Wilson, who is averaging less than one turnover per game and recently moved into the starting lineup, and junior guard Corey Spence. Combined the point guard tandem is averaging around nine points and four assists per game, and given the other productive offensive options at Hill’s disposal neither has to be a lights-out scorer for the Bears to be successful.

Offensively the Bears are a balanced group, with four players scoring in double figures led by senior forward Derrick Barden (13.8 ppg, 9.1 rpg). Northern Colorado leads the Big Sky in both points per game (75.6 ppg) and field goal percentage, shooting 49.2% from the field, and their three-point percentage of 39.9% ranks second in the conference. Those numbers have contributed to Northern Colorado leading the Big Sky in offensive efficiency.

“Offensively we’re very balanced. We’ve had a different guy step up basically every night,” noted Hill. “Hopefully two or three of those guys are playing well [on a nightly basis]. That competition every day in practice makes everybody better. The best thing about them is that they don’t get hung up on it; they’re very unselfish and they’re playing for each other.”

While the triumvirate of Barden, Tate Unruh and Tevin Svihovec were all double-digit scorers last season, junior forward Tim Hukisson (11.5 ppg, 4.1 rpg) has increased his scoring output by nearly four points per game compared to the 2012-13 campaign. He, Barden and junior Dominique Lee are key figures in the front court for Northern Colorado, which has just one player in its rotation who stands taller than 6-foot-5 (senior forward Connor Osborne).

The 6-foot-5 Barden’s led the way on the boards for the Bears, and he’s posted two 17-rebound efforts this season with the first coming in their season-opening win at Kansas State. While that game was a step forward for Northern Colorado as a team, it was also a step forward for Barden.

His numbers are slightly better than his averages of a season ago, but there has been a noticeable difference in the way in which Barden approaches the game according to Hill.

“I think Derrick’s biggest improvement is from the shoulders up,” said Hill. “He’s shown a greater maturity when going against bigger, stronger guys and a more consistent work ethic day in and day out.”

Northern Colorado’s win in Manhattan was an important one for the program, and not solely because of the fact that they beat the reigning Big 12 co-champions. The importance of that result also came from the fact that Northern Colorado cut a 12-point first-half deficit to five by the intermission, keeping them within striking distance of the Wildcats. That may not seem like a big deal to most, but according to Hill that’s an occurrence that may not have happened last season, with it being a clear illustration of this team’s growth.

“The biggest thing about that game is that we fell behind early,” said Hill, noting the competitiveness of his team. “They got down 12 but fought back and got [the deficit] down to make it a five-point game at the break, and in the locker room they were very confident.”

Northern Colorado’s off to a 4-0 start in conference play, but all four of those games were played in Greeley. This week brings about the challenging Montana road trip, with the Bears facing games against Montana State and Montana. The Bobcats are off to a 3-1 start in Big Sky play, and while Wayne Tinkle’s Grizzlies have lost three of their last four games they still have the Big Sky’s reigning Player of the Year in Kareem Jamar.

In order to build on their success to date the Bears will need to continue to execute on both ends of the floor, especially defensively. That was missing last season, but after getting back to who they are as a program Northern Colorado looks more than capable of contending in the Big Sky.

No. 5 Xavier stumbles at Creighton, lose 70-54

Creighton's Cole Huff (13) and Toby Hegner, left, guard Xavier's Jalen Reynolds (1) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Omaha, Neb., Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2016. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
(AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
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Mo Watson went for a career-high 32 points, seven boards and five assists as Creighton jumped out to an early 21-4 lead and never looked back, beating No. 5 Xavier, 70-54, in Omaha on Tuesday night.

 

It was a massive win for the Bluejays, who still have an outside shot at earning an at-large bid this season. (We wrote all about that here.)

As well as Creighton played, the bigger story here may actually be Xavier, who lost for just the third time this season; they had been the only top ten team with just two losses to their name.

The issue for the Musketeers tonight was two-fold, but they both are a symptom of what could be an issue down the road for this team: Xavier doesn’t really have a true point guard.

They certainly didn’t have anyone to stop Watson. By the second half, they had essentially asked Reynolds, who was playing the middle of their 1-3-1 zone to matchup with Watson. It was weird but was actually somewhat effective.

The Musketeers also started out ice cold from the floor, missing 11 of their first 13 shots, and those misses led to leak outs from Bluejays, who got layups and open threes in transition to build that 17 point lead. Once Xavier got behind, it turned into scramble mode for Xavier. They forced shots early in the clock and didn’t start pounding the ball into the paint until it was too late. What they needed was someone to be able to settle things, to ensure that offensive would get initiated and sets would get executed when they were able to get the lead down to single digits.

That 1-for-19 shooting performance from beyond the arc certainly didn’t help matters, and neither did the fact that they got just nine field goals all game from players not named James Farr or Jalen Reynolds. The most frustrating part for head coach Chris Mack? They had good shots. It wasn’t like Creighton took away everything that Xavier wanted to do.

The kids just had one of those nights where nothing went down.

Those happen.

And when you combine them with a total inability to contain the opposing team’s point guard, what you get is a 16 point loss on the road against a team that was desperate to get a good win.

Gill’s 16, ‘D’ lead No. 7 Virginia past Virginia Tech, 67-49

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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) Anthony Gill scored 16 points and No. 7 Virginia turned the tables on state rival Virginia Tech with a 67-49 victory Tuesday night, the Cavaliers’ seventh straight.

Isaiah Wilkins added a career-best 14 points and Malcolm Brogdon had 12 for the Cavaliers (20-4, 9-3 Atlantic Coast Conference). Virginia avenged a 70-68 loss to the Hokies in Blacksburg on Jan. 4 in what rates as their worst performance of the season, and extended their winning streak at John Paul Jones Arena to 17 games.

Freshman Justin Robinson scored 16 points and classmate Chris Clarke had 11 in his first action for the Hokies (13-12, 5-7) since breaking his right foot in late December. Virginia Tech’s top two scorers, Zach LeDay (16.0 ppg) and Seth Allen (14.5), were limited to seven and six points, respectively, in part because of foul trouble.

Virginia coach Tony Bennett said his team wasn’t ready to play when it lost to the Hokies earlier, but they have been surging of late and were focused from the outset. They were credited with assists and 14 of their first 15 baskets and forced 10 turnovers in the first half; they forced just eight in the last meeting of the teams.

For most of the game, the Hokies had more turnovers than field goals.

The Cavaliers led 32-20 at halftime and extended their advantage to 47-29 on a three-point play by Mike Tobey with 12:11 remaining. It capped an 11-4 run for Virginia, during which LeDay was whistled for his fourth foul. On Virginia’s next trip down court, it got the ball to Gill inside and LeDay basically backed off and let him score, quickly earning a spot on the bench.

The Cavaliers’ lead never dipped into single digits again.

The Hokies had just eight turnovers and outscored Virginia 26-6 off turnovers in their first meeting. This time, Virginia Tech had 10 turnovers by halftime and the Cavaliers had already turned them into 15 points. Virginia Tech finished with 16 field goals and 15 turnovers.

Already leading 9-6, Virginia got scoring from eight players in a 23-8 run that spanned about 8 1/2 minutes.

Gill started it with a dunk, Brogdon hit a 3-pointer, London Perrantes had a four-point play and Wilkins finished it with two free throws, giving the Cavaliers a 32-14 lead with 2:06 left in the half. They didn’t score again, and the Hokies closed within 32-20 by halftime.

TIP-INS

Virginia Tech: The Hokies shot 57.1 percent (15 of 26) from the field in the second half of their 70-68 victory against Virginia on Jan. 4. … Virginia Tech’s starting five totaled four points in the first half.

Virginia: The Cavaliers have held four consecutive opponents to 50 points or fewer.

UP NEXT

Virginia Tech plays at No. 12 Miami next Wednesday.

Virginia plays at Duke on Saturday.

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