March 16, 2011

Bears ready to step into the spotlight

Northern Colorado notes | Coach Hill's guest column on Bleacher Report | Coach Hill's media day press conference | Seniors' media day press conference | Hill earns Big Sky Coach of the Year | Greeley Tribune "Dancing in the Desert" slideshow

TUCSON -- Northern Colorado basketball is a far cry tonight from where it was when it officially embarked on its journey to become a NCAA Division I program.

The Bears are fewer than 24 hours away from stepping on the floor before a worldwide audience to take on national-powerhouse San Diego State in the 2011 NCAA Men's Basketball Championship.

Northern Colorado (21-10) drew a No. 15 seed during last Sunday's Selection Show, and only four of those seeds have ever won a game in the NCAA Tournament.

So the Bears, who participated in a Media Day and Open Practice Session Wednesday at McKale Center, will look to make history here tomorrow afternoon and join the ranks of the "Cinderellas," who always pop up this time of year, making this annual athletic event one of the country's most popular.

But it won't be easy.

Sitting on the opposing bench Thursday will be a sixth-ranked and second-seeded Aztecs squad that finished 32-2 this season, losing only to BYU and national scoring sensation Jimmer Fredette. San Diego State is also led by legendary coach Steve Fisher, who's won more than 400 college basketball games in his time patrolling the sidelines and won an NCAA Championship in 1989 and been to three Final Fours.

If Northern Colorado is to have some success, it only needs to find a way to keep doing what its done over its past 20 games.

The Bears are 17-3 since Dec. 29 because they have scored the ball (they averaged a Big Sky-best 72.2 points per game this season), rebounded the ball (24th in the nation in rebounding margin) and utilized an offense to perfection that has allowed senior guard Devon Beitzel to average 27 points per game over Northern Colorado's last nine contests.

If those trends continue and The Madness shines a bit on Northern Colorado coach B.J. Hill's program, the Bears, the worst team in the country in 2007, could make a run at this thing and become the first Big Sky team since 2006 to move on in the NCAA Tournament.

Game information

Game 32: Northern Colorado (21-10; 13-3 Big Sky) vs. San Diego State (32-2, 14-2 Mountain West)
When: 1:40 p.m. Thursday, March 17
Where: Tucson, Ariz. -- McKale Center (14,545)  
Live stats:     
Coaches: The Bears' B.J. Hill (21-10 overall) vs. the Aztec's Steve Fisher (414-233 overall; 230-151 at SDSU)
All-time series: SDSU leads 5-1 in a series that started with back-to-back games in 1960. The Bears got a 62-56 road win in 2008.
TV: TNT (Dan Bonner, Kevin Harlan, Reggie Miller, Sam Ryan) 
Radio: KFKA-AM 1310 (Troy Coverdale); Westwood One (Dave Sims, Bill Frieder)

Series history

1960-61    at San Diego State    L, 72-66
1960-61    at San Diego State    L, 68-67
1962-63    San Diego State    L, 74-73
1971-72    at San Diego State    L, 104-75
2007-08    at San Diego State    W, 62-56
2008-09    San Diego State    L, 73-62

The Bears' basics    

  • Northern Colorado began its transition to the NCAA Division I level in 2003, and the Bears' basketball program was first postseason eligible in 2007.
  • Northern Colorado received 197 points, two first-place votes and the second pick in this year's Big Sky Conference Preseason Basketball Media Poll, which is the programs' best conference preseason pick in that poll since joining the league in 2006. (9th, 8th, 6th and 6th)
  • The Bears received 46 points, no first-place votes and the fourth pick in the Big Sky Preseason Coaches poll.
  • Northern Colorado's 84-54 victory against Sacramento State on Wednesday, March 2, earned it the 2011 Big Sky Conference regular-season championship -- its first and the school's first regular-season title since joining the NCAA Division I ranks.
  • The Bears' 65-60 slugfest with Montana on ESPN2 on Wednesday, March 9, gave the Bears the outright 2011 Big Sky Championship, earning them their first spot in the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Championship.
  • Northern Colorado is ranked No. 99 in the latest NCAA RPI report, coming in ahead of Big Sky-team Montana (106), Weber State (150) and Northern Arizona (152) as the only league teams in the top 200. Montana State comes in at 258.
  • Northern Colorado is ranked sixth in the country in team free-throw percentage in 2010-11 and it also ranks in the national top 50 in three-point field-goal percentage (21), rebounding margin (24) and 3-pointers made per game (33).
  • The Bears finished the 2010-11 season 14-0 at home, making it 27-2 in Greeley over the past two seasons and 37-6 at home since 2008.
  • A Bears victory Thursday would give them eight straight for the second straight season and for just the 10th time in 107 seasons of play.
  • The Bears are 37-4 over the last two seasons when leading at the half, including a 16-2 mark in that situation this season.
  • Northern Colorado senior Devon Beitzel has made 87 of his last 96 free throws and enters Thursday's NCAA Tournament game as the nation's ninth-best free throw shooter at 90.3 percent on the year. Mississippi's Chris Warren (93.3) leads the country in free-throw shooting.
  • Beitzel is the Big Sky's best scorer through the Bears' 31 games this season (21.4). He entered the season having averaged no higher than 14.3 points per game in a season (last season).
  • Northern Colorado senior Chris Kaba is the Big Sky's fourth-best three-point shooter through the Bears' 31 games, pouring in long balls at a 43.4 percent clip. Teammate Elliott Lloyd ranks seventh in the Big Sky (41.3 percent) in the category.
  • At 1,043 all-time victories (107 seasons) Northern Colorado basketball is the second-winningest program in school history (NC baseball has 1,423).

Hello, world! Bears ready for 'The Madness'    

  • Northern Colorado's 65-60 slugfest victory against Montana on Wednesday, March 9, gave the Bears their first NCAA Division I postseason championshp and qualified them for this year's NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Championship.
  • This is Northern Colorado's first appearance in the NCAA Tournament since 1989 (Division II).
  • The Bears won the 2010-11 Big Sky Conference regular-season title (and the coveted right to host the Big Sky Conference Championship  "final four" with its 84-54 victory against Sacramento State on Wednesday, March 2.
  • Northern Colorado is finishing up just its fourth year of being NCAA Division I postseason eligibility.

The Big Sky Conference and the NCAA Tournament    

  • Northern Colorado is the 12th team to represent the Big Sky Conference in the NCAA Tournament.
  • The Bears are looking to become just the fifth Big Sky team to earn a NCAA Tournament victory.
  • This is the third time in the past 10 seasons that the Big Sky NCAA Tournament representative has drawn a No. 15 seed in the field. In 2007, 15th-seeded Weber State lost to No. 2 seed UCLA. In 2004, (15) Eastern Washington lost to (2) Oklahoma State, and in 2002, (15) Montana lost to (2) Oregon.
  • The Big Sky's last victory in the NCAA Tournament came in 2006 when No. 12 seed Montana upset No. 5 seed Nevada in the first round in Salt Lake City.
  • Northern Colorado's No. 15 seed in this year's field is the league's lowest draw since Portland State received a No. 16 seed in 2008. In all, a Big Sky team has been a No. 15 seed or lower 12 times since 1979.

Postseason points to ponder    

  • Northern Colorado began play last week in its third consecutive NCAA Division I postseason (2009, 2010 and 2011).
  • The Bears' victory against Montana on Wednesday, March 9, was just their fourth postseason victory (at any level) since 1994.
  • Northern Colorado was the fifth seed in the 2009 Big Sky Championship but fell to Idaho State in a quarterfinal game in Pocatello, Idaho. The Bears were then the second seed last year but lost to Montana in the semifinals in Ogden, Utah, before advancing to the 2010 Postseason Tournament (CIT), where it defeated Portland and then saw its season end with a loss to Pacific.
  • The Bears first advanced past their regular season in 1926 and have now advanced to the postseason 19 times in their history.
  • Northern Colorado is 11-26 all-time in postseason games, and its matched this season the school record for postseason wins, set in 1992 when the Bears finished 2-1 at the North Central Conference (NCC) Tournament.

The Bears against the "Big Boys"    

  • Northern Colorado will be facing the biggest challenge in school history on Thursday afternoon when it faces the #6 San Diego State Aztecs in the second round of the 2011 NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Championship.
  • The Bears' previous highest-ranked opponent in school history came earlier this year when they took on #16 Illinois on Dec. 12, 2010.
  • NC's game against the Illini was the program's first versus a ranked opponent since taking on #18 Gonzaga during the 2007-08 season.
  • In all, Northern Colorado comes into Thursday having played five ranked teams since 2003, when it first began began playing NCAA Division I opponents as an independent program reclassifying to the NCAA Division I level.
  • The Bears are 0-5 since 2003 against nationally ranked Division I foes, coming the closest to victory this season, in an 86-76 loss to the Illini.

NC on the TV    

  • In terms of wins and losses, the Bears turned in one of the best seasons of any team in the country last year, and they've been rewarded in their 2010-11 schedule with myriad television opportunities.
  • The Bears' Big Sky Championship game against Montana (ESPN2) on Wednesday, Feb. 2, pushed Northern Colorado's record for TV appearances in a single season to nine. The Bears' previous high was seven TV appearances during the 2004-05 season.
  • Not to mention, Northern Colorado's victory against Montana last week on ESPN2 was the Bears first-ever national TV exposure.
  • Northern Colorado is 10-31 all-time in televised contests and 7-6 in its last 13 TV games.