OGDEN, Utah -- Depending on whom you ask, the Northern Colorado men's basketball team is either a trendy pick to merely return to the Big Sky Conference Tournament this season or win the whole kit and caboodle.
The league released its annual preseason polls earlier this afternoon, and the Bears were picked second by the league's media members and fourth in a survey of the league's nine coaches.
Northern Colorado, which has steadily improved its preseason reputation in each of its four years in the Big Sky, received two first-place votes in this year's media poll for the first time ever but got no first-place love from the Big Sky coaches.
Northern Colorado was the sixth pick in the preseason polls in 2009 and 2008, the eighth pick in 2007 and the ninth in 2006.
"I don't put a whole lot of stock into preseason polls," said first-year head coach B.J. Hill. "It kind of gives you an idea of where we've come from, but it's still certainly not where we want to be. What I'm really concerned with is where we end up at the end of the year. But, at the same time, I think our steady progression is a definite sign of the respect we're earning throughout the conference.
"In terms of motivation, we enter every season with an eye toward winning a conference championship. We've got a group of guys back this year that know preseason polls play no part in reaching that. We're internally motivated to continue to make history at Northern Colorado."
The Bears will embark on the 2010-11 season under Hill after finishing with a school-record and Big Sky-best 25-8 overall record in 2010 and a 12-4 league mark, which was good enough for second in the Big Sky's regular-season race.
The Bears lost to Montana in the Big Sky semifinals but later advanced to the quarterfinals of the CollegeInside.com Postseason Tournament (CIT).
Northern Colorado returns three starters from last year's team, including senior guard Devon Beitzel, who was a second-team all-conference selection last season after missing the final seven games of the year with a foot injury.
Also back for the Bears will be one of the best starting frontcourts in the Big Sky in senior Taylor Montgomery and junior Mike Proctor. Chris Kaba, who started the final seven games last year after Beitzel went down, is also back.
It all adds up to a team that has no plans of resting on its laurels or taking a step back with a new leader at the helm.
"I'm really excited with the state of this program," Hill said. "All of these veterans have been here as long as I have, and they know how close we were last year to winning this whole thing. So, these second- or fourth-place picks are still motivation for our guys, because that's the kind of kids they are. We don't want to finish fourth or second or whatever. We want to finish first, and we got a taste of how close we were last year."
Weber State received six of nine first-place votes from the coaches and 21 of 28 first-place votes from the media to take the top spot in both polls. The Wildcats, who finished 13-3 in conference during the 2009-10 season, are 28-4 in Big Sky games over the past two seasons and, once again, are the team to beat.
The media and coaches placed eight of the nine league teams in the same slot, with the only exception coming at the No. 2 position, where Northern Colorado and Northern Arizona flip-flopped.
The Lumberjacks, who finished 14-14 and 8-8 in 2010, garnered one first-place vote from the coaches to come in second in that poll and one first-place nod from the media to sit in fourth in that poll.
Montana, which won the Big Sky Tournament last season before losing to New Mexico in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, is third in both polls. Montana State (fifth), Eastern Washington (sixth), Portland State (seventh), Idaho State (eighth) and Sacramento State (ninth) round out the poll.
"This league, like always, will be a battle, night in and night out," Hill said. "We've built on some rivalries in my time here, and those have come out of knock-down, drag-out contests at home and on the road.
"We know we'll have to be mentally tough to do again what we did last year, but that's something that's driven us all offseason. We know we have a chance to do something we've never done before, and that's given us a reason to go hard in practice every day."