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.