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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.

Clemson recruit to enroll early

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Clemson will get a four-star recruit on campus a year earlier than it expected, though his on-court debut for the Tigers will remain on schedule.

A.J. Oliver, a guard from South Carolina, will enroll early at Clemson and redshirt this upcoming season, he announced via social media Wednesday.

“I woke up this morning and realized that the greatest opportunity for me is to enroll early into Clemson,” he wrote on Twitter. “I will redshirt a year & start my college career early.”

Oliver, whose mother is the head women’s basketball coach at Clemson, was a consensus top-100 player in the class of 2017 who committed to the Tigers last December. Texas Tech and the College of Charleston were involved before his commitment.

A three-star shooting guard, Scott Spencer of Virginia, was previously the only member coach Brad Brownell’s 2016 class. While Oliver’s decision to redshirt will keep him off the court for the 2016-17 season, he’ll have spent a full season in the Tiger program before making his debut in 2017

The cupboard isn’t bare in 2017 for the Tigers due to Oliver’s reclassification because Clemson received a commitment from power forward Malik Williams, a consensus top-150 player, earlier Wednesday.

Kentucky used Calipari-Chaney fight in media training

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Kentucky held some media training sessions yesterday, and one of the topics that head coach John Calipari used to make a point was … his blow-up with John Chaney. The moment was captured on SnapChat by a trio of Kentucky newcomers.

You remember that incident. Chaney, then the head coach at Temple, and Cal, who was coaching Atlantic 10 rival UMass at the time, nearly came to blows over the way that Cal handled officials during the game. Before the video below picks up, the two shared this exchange:

“Could I say this to you, please?” Chaney said, before the video above picks up. “You’ve got a good ball club. But what you did with the officials out there is wrong, and I don’t want to be a party to that. You understand?”

Cal responded: “You weren’t out there, Coach. You don’t have any idea.”

Chaney fired back: “You got a game given to you by officials right here with G.W. on three bad calls, O.K.? Then you send your kids out there pushing and shoving. You had the best officiating you could ever get here. And for you to ride them, I don’t want to be a party to that.”

And that led to “I’ll kill you”:

(h/t KSR)

VIDEO: Shaq’s son, Shareef O’Neal, with monster dunk in Vegas

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Shareef O’Neal is a top 50 prospect in the Class of 2018. In Vegas this past weekend, he threw down a monster put-back dunk.

South Dakota State gets two commits

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Tuesday was a busy and productive one for South Dakota State on the recruiting trail.

The Jackrabbits secured two 2017 commitments from the state of Wisconsin in Ryan Krueger and Alex Arians, a source tells NBCSports.com.

Krueger is a 6-foot-5 wing player from New London, Wisc. while Arians is a 6-foot-4 guard from Madison, Wisc., who also held an offer from Wright State, which is coached by former SDSU coach Scott Nagy. Both players spend their summers playing for the Wisconsin Swing grassroots program.

The pair make it a trio of commits for the Jackrabbits in 2017 with another Wisconsinite, Alou Dillon, pledging to first-year Jackrabbits coach T.J. Otzelberger, himself a Wisconsin native, earlier this summer.

South Dakota State went 26-8 last year and the bulk of the team that made the NCAA tournament last year, including sophomore Mike Daum, who led the team in scoring and rebounding as a freshman.

Incoming Gator freshman ineligible for upcoming season

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Florida will need to wait a year before seeing 6-foot-11 recruit Gorjok Gak playing games for the Gators.

The NCAA ruled that the incoming freshman will be able to enroll at Florida this year and practice with the team, but will be ineligible for games this season, the school announced Tuesday.

Should he meet all his progress marks during his freshman year, he’ll have three seasons of eligibility remaining starting in 2017-18.

Gak’s eligibility issue centered on his playing games during his postgraduate year at Victory Rock Prep, according to his coach there.

“Following his graduate year from Australia, he was supposed to play from December to December,” Loren Jackson told the Gainesville Sun, “but instead played from December until the following May.”

Gak originally signed with Oklahoma State, but de-committed following Travis Ford’s firing in Stillwater this past spring. Gak averaged 13.8 points and 9.3 rebounds last season at Victory Rock in Bradenton, Fla.

Florida went 21-15 last season under first-year coach Mike White.