GREELEY, Colo. -- Ask around about the prospects for Northern Colorado's men's basketball program as it enters the 2009-10 season and the conversation will likely revolve much around the players who aren't in Greeley anymore.
Talented seniors Jabril Banks and Robert Palacios, for example, have both graduated and moved on after helping the Bears earn their first conference-tournament berth last season in just their third year of postseason eligibility. Banks earned Northern Colorado's first All-Big Sky First Team honor in 2009, and Palacios was widely considered one of the league's best all-around defenders and max-energy players.
But those departures have hardly left the Bears' cupboard, well, bare. In fact, if you ask head coach Tad Boyle about the state of his program, you'll definitely hear a lot more about the players who are still wearing the Blue & Gold than those who aren't. The mind-set in the Northern Colorado preseason camp has been simple: the talent lost has been replaced.
Experience is all that needs replenished following last spring's graduation, and that's how Boyle knows it should be as he forms the Bears in the model of his previous stops (Oregon, Tennessee and Wichita State).
And that trek toward experience starts with the 2009 Hawaii Outrigger Hotels Rainbow Classic, where Boyle, who has improved on his win total in each of his three years in Greeley, will debut his fourth installment at Northern Colorado.
"Jabril and Robert were special players for us, no doubt," Boyle says. "They came to us from the junior-college ranks and really helped establish the type of culture we want as a coaching staff. But we think we've brought in a group of guys this year that is more than capable of filling those shoes. And when you talk about adding them to our returners, there's the potential for this to be a pretty special year."
Paramount among those returners in 2009 will be a pair of honorable mention all-conference guards from last year in senior Will Figures and junior Devon Beitzel. Figures averaged a team-leading 12.1 points per game in 2008-09 and finished fourth in the Big Sky in three-point shooting percentage (.439), and Beitzel was right behind, pouring in 11.8 points per game on 49 percent shooting from the field.
Also back this season will be senior Yahosh Bonner (his relentless defensive tenacity figures to lessen the loss of Palacios), junior Neal Kingman (5.9 ppg. a year ago), sophomore forward/center Mike Proctor (5.1 points and 4.5 rebounds per game last year), junior guard/forward Chris Kaba (he shot a team-leading 48 percent from beyond the three-point line in 2008-09) and junior forward/center Taylor Montgomery (he had a strong freshman season before a preseason neck injury derailed his momentum as a sophomore).
"We're bringing back a nucleus this season that's better than any other we've had entering a season since we got here," Boyle says. "There are some players in there who have already shown some things in the heat of competition, and there are some others who we know have it in them. This is the year for all of them to help us turn another corner."
Adding to the Bears' excitement is the recruiting class Boyle and his assistants have added to the fold.
Guards David Arnold and Tate Unruh signed their National Letters of Intent in mid-April and joined big men Emmanuel Addo and Connor Osborne, who put pen to paper last fall.
Arnold joins the family after averaging 22 points per game as a high school senior at ThunderRidge High in Highlands Ranch, Colo., and Unruh, a 2009 McDonald's All-American nominee, comes along following a standout career for at Branson (Mo.) High. Unruh finished his Pirates career as the second-best free-throw shooter in Missouri high school history (87.3 percent) and the fourth-best three-point shooter (46 percent his senior year).
The 6-9, 215-pound Addo (pronounced ‘Ah-DOO') is a lefty big man born in Africa and raised in Toronto and Minneapolis who has a game that draws comparisons from Boyle of Banks. And for Osborne, the sky's the limit, Boyle says. He averaged about 13 points and four rebounds a game as a junior while leading Colorado in blocked shots (nearly eight per) before injuries limited him during his senior season at Columbine High.
From top to bottom, that group has the looks of a class that can help in the short and long term.
"I really hope they can all go through together," Boyle says of the newcomers. "When I first got to Wichita State, our first full recruiting class was six guys -- and that's a big class -- and four of them played together until their senior years and all four ended up being 1,000-point scorers for us. That's what I think this class can do."
Northern Colorado is still in the infancy stages of NCAA Division I status, but in their three previous attempts at joining the party, Boyle and his Bears have proved more than capable of sticking around for the long haul.
Boyle knows that the hard work he, his assistant coaches and players have put in leading up to this season is starting to pay off. And judging by the atmosphere around the Northern Colorado basketball offices last summer and this fall, the Bears are about to roar.