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Know Your Small Conference Winners: Northern Colorado Bears

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Chronic losing can eat away at a person. You practice, you study, and you leave your heart and soul out on the floor. And then you lose. And then you lose again. And again. And again. Resiliency comes in many forms, and all of us, athletes or not, have a breaking point. That's usually when the 'easy button' drops down from the heavens, imprinted with the letters Q-U-I-T, imploring us to push it so we can relieve our troubles. But that doesn't work.

Nothing great ever gets accomplished by the people who refuse to stick it out during the tough times. Want proof? Neal Kingman went 4-24 in his first year with North Colorado. The 6'7" kid who grew up right down the street from campus wasn't exactly enamored with getting beat-up every single night, and that led him to question his future in hoops. "Honestly, after our freshman year, I was like, I don't know if this is for me. I had second thoughts, there's no doubt about it," Kingman said. And yet, he didn't quit.

Gradually, things started to improve. The Bears won 13 games the following year, then improved to 14 before setting a school-record with 25 last season. An opening round Big Sky tournament loss to Montana ultimately kept UNC from the greatest postseason in sports in 2010 (they went on to play in the CBI). But because of a medical redshirt granted to him after an injury during his first year on campus, Kingman knew his eligibility would not officially run dry until the end of the 2010-11 campaign. This was it - one year left.

With the experience of the previous season working wonders from a confidence standpoint, Northern Colorado cruised through Big Sky competition en route to a 13-3 mark in league play. Drawing second place Montana in the conference title game, with an eye on revenge, was just icing on the cake. On the biggest stage, a chance to play in the big dance brought out the absolute best in UNC. When the final buzzer sounded, history had been made: The Northern Colorado Bears, for the first time in school history, were headed to the NCAA tournament.

Something that appeared so illogical, so inconceivable only a few years ago, is now every bit a reality. Neal Kingman didn't quit. He swallowed the losses and toughed it out. Now he's a champion. Not a bad way to end a career.

A breakdown after the jump...

Location: Greeley, Colorado

Enrollment: 10,097

Record: 21-10 (13-3)

Leading scorers: Devon Beitzel (21.4 ppg); Neal Kingman (10.6); Chris Kaba (9.5)

What to know:

  • The Beitzel Show - The senior led the Big Sky in scoring, and ranked 14th nationally at 21.4 points per game. But it's his shooting accuracy that makes the 6'1" guard such an elite threat. Of the 16 players who finished ahead of him in True Shooting %, only Derrick Williams and his 18.9 ppg average can even remotely compare in terms of usage rate. Beitzel is the guy who carries this offense in the boxscore each night, and his 13 points in the final five minutes vs. Montana indicate that he is more than capable of performing in clutch situations.
  • Take Note of the Freebies - This is a team that shot 77.2% from the line during the year, a number good enough to place them seventh in the country. To reach the Big Sky title game, the Bears went 32-35 (91.4%) from the foul line against a slap-happy Northern Arizona squad. And since UNC's top four scorers all shoot at least 76% from the stripe, there just aren't very many options for defenses to get lucky by fouling bad shooters.
  • 2011 Turnaround Might Be Fool's Gold - In the late hours on December 22nd, the Bears held a 4-7 record. The season was starting to slip away from head coach B.J. Hill after getting demoralized by Louisiana-Monroe, arguably one of the worst teams in the sport. Thankfully, the start of the new year coincided with the opening of a comfy Big Sky schedule, and the wins started rolling in. In 18 games played in 2011, the Bears won 15. But how do we really measure this team? By its well-rounded play in Big Sky games, or by how it fared in non-conference battles with Illinois, Arizona, Santa Clara, Valparaiso, Denver, Colorado State, and Louisiana-Monroe? The latter seems more appropriate. Those seven games? All losses.

Projected seed: #15. The Bears would be well-served to soak up every last minute of their March Madness trip, because it isn't going to last very long. Beitzel should be interesting to watch against a powerhouse program, but UNC doesn't have the talent to hang with a No. 1 or No. 2 seed.


Know Your Small Conference Winners

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