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.

Gonzaga lands their first post-Final Four commitment

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Gonzaga capitalized on their run to the national title game by landing a commitment from French point guard Joel Ayayi, who announced the news on twitter.

Ayayi is an interesting long-term prospect, according to Draft Express. He has the size and the frame to eventually be a significant contributor in the college game, but he’s raw. His handle needs work, as does his ability to create off the dribble and find teammates off of the bounce.

That said, he’s 6-foot-4 with a 6-foot-7 wingspan and the ability to shoot it from the perimeter, and if Gonzaga can do anything, it’s develop players that enter their program.

VIDEO: Zion Williamson, top three prospect in 2018, breaks defender’s ankles

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Zion Williamson, one of the most sought-after recruits in college basketball, had himself a highlight-worthy moment at the Adidas Gauntlet event in Dallas over the weekend, breaking a defender’s ankles before hitting a three.

Illinois lands important commitment from four-star Class of 2017 guard Mark Smith

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Illinois landed a very important Class of 2017 commitment on Wednesday as guard Mark Smith pledged to the Illini.

The 6-foot-4 Smith was previously a Missouri commit for baseball, but some issues with his arm caused him to look back into basketball last summer. A native of Edwardsville, in the St. Louis metro area, Smith came out of nowhere to win the Illinois Mr. Basketball award as a senior this season as he averaged 21.9 points, 8.4 assists and 8.2 rebounds while becoming a consensus national top-100 prospect.

Rivals rates Smith as the No. 52 overall prospect in the Class of 2017 as he could come in and earn immediate minutes at Illinois next season at either guard spot.

This is a very important commitment for head coach Brad Underwood and the Illini as the new head coach was able to hold off some elite programs like Kentucky and Michigan State for Smith’s services.

Northwestern gets commitment from Boston College transfer A.J. Turner

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Northwestern landed a transfer on Wednesday as former Boston College wing A.J. Turner pledged to the Wildcats, a source confirmed to NBCSports.com.

The 6-foot-7 Turner just finished his sophomore season with the Golden Eagles as he averaged 8.4 points, 3.3 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game. A well-rounded wing who also shot 37 percent from three-point range, Turner will have to sit out one season due to NCAA transfer regulations before getting two more years of eligibility.

With Scottie Lindsay and Vic Law only having limited time left in Evanston, Turner provides a bit of insurance on the wing for the Wildcats for the future as he’s a proven rotation player coming from the ACC.

If you think 137 players declaring for the draft is stupid, you’re probably stupid

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The NBA Draft’s full early entry list came out on Tuesday afternoon, and there were 137 underclassmen listed on it.

137.

For 60 spots in the NBA Draft, only 30 of which guarantee you a contract in the NBA.

And that’s before you factor in the 45 international players that also declared for the NBA Draft, as well as the crop of seniors — Josh Hart, Monte’ Morris, Jaron Blossomgame, Alec Peters — that are going to end up hearing their names called. All told, there are going to be roughly 200 players competing to be one of the 60 people that end up getting drafted on June 22nd, and you don’t have to be any good at math to realize that 200 is a much, much bigger number than 60.

This unleashed a torrent of bad takes on the decision of these players.

And bad may not be doing those takes justice.

Because the bottom-line is this: You cannot paint the decision on whether or not to go pro with a broad brush.

For some players, making money of any kind is something they need to do to support their family, whether it’s what they’ll get with a first round guarantee, the $75-100,000 they’ll get for making a training camp roster to subsidize their time in the D-League while teams develop them or the money they can make in the D-League or overseas. You don’t know what their financial situation is. Maximizing their ability to capitalize on every available dollar they can make off of their athletic gifts may be more important than working towards a degree.

And it’s worth noting here that a guaranteed contract isn’t the only way to make a living in professional basketball. To say nothing of the money that can be made overseas or the number of second round picks and undrafted players that make guaranteed money — which is more than you probably realize — it needs to be noted that D-League salaries are getting a bump this year with the new CBA.

The NBA has also instituted something new called a “two-way contract”. Without getting into the legalese, it’s essentially a retainer worth well into the six figures that they will be able to give to two players that will allow them to retain that player under contract while sending them between the D-League and the NBA roster. In a sense, it creates an extra 60 NBA roster spots for players that have 0-3 years worth of professional basketball on their résumé.

Some players are simply declaring without signing with an agent because they want to get feedback directly from NBA personnel on what their professional prospects. Some will hear that they need to return to school to work on their body, or work on their jumper, or mature as a person to be able to handle everything that comes with being a professional. Others will be told they’re going to make a lot of money by staying in the draft, or that they need to go back to school because, frankly, they are not professional basketball players. Not getting invited to the NBA combine is a pretty good indication of where you stand in the eyes of NBA teams.

Still other players are putting their name into the draft to leave their options open should they be recruited over by the program they are a part of. Take Frank Jackson, for example. If he can return to school and thrive as Duke’s point guard, maybe he turns into a top 20 pick. But what happens if Trevon Duval, the best point guard in the Class of 2017 and a top five pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, picks Duke? Would it be in Jackson’s best interest to come back to Duke when he won’t be playing the position that he needs to learn to play to turn himself into a lasting NBA player?

Jackson, like the roughly 100 underclassmen that have declared without an agent, has until May 24th to make his decision on whether or not he will keep his name in the draft. Until then, he can return to school without damaging his eligibility.

The entire reason that the NCAA changed their rules to allow players to test the waters is so that they can make the most important decision of their lives with as much information as humanly possible. This thing exists for the sole purpose of allowing the kids to have as much knowledge about their options as possible.

And that is exactly what these kids are doing.

So the idea that this rule, or players taking advantage of that rule, however high that number may be, is a bad thing is stupid.