|Northern Colorado opted to head Down Under in August. (Northern Colorado Athletics)|
In our Trippin' series, we're talking to teams as they return from preseason trips to foreign locales. Check here for all Trippin'-related stories.
The idea was hatched back when Tad Boyle was heading up the program. Raise enough money and take the trip on a once-in-a-lifetime trip. Well, then-assistant B.J. Hill, who is now entering his third year as the head coach, continued the quest and his team recently returned from a 10-day jaunt to Australia. The NCAA tournament berth in Hill's rookie season at the helm certainly didn't hurt the donations.
"It really was incredible," he said. "In every way possible."
The team split four games on the trip, but it was the mental toughness his junior-laden group displayed that has him hoping that the Bears may be able to return to the Big Dance in the next year or two.
What Hill learned: "Last year we had five guys going through the same adjustment all at once. The year before, we had four seniors and last year's group thought they knew what to expect last year, but they didn't really know. I think know these guys understand it better. They took a punch on the trip and fought back. Last year they took the same kind of punch and didn't quite know what to do."
Who stood out: "Derrick Barden. He was a third-team junior college All-American who was the first person to average 20 points and 10 boards at Midland since Larry Johnson. He's undersized, probably only about 6-foot-4, but he averaged a double-double against the two toughest teams over there. I didn't think he'd be able to go right in and do that against pros."
Biggest concern: "Defense. Valuing defense more. Scoring isn't our problem, but we need to take more pride and show more effort on the defensive side of the ball. We did a better job on the trip, but we've still got to improve in that aspect."
- Hill admitted that, even a week later, his 9-year-old has done a much better job adjusting to the time change. "I'm soft like that," he joked.
- The only significant loss from last year's team was that of starting power forward Mike Proctor, who averaged 9.5 points and 6.8 boards and was an honorable mention all-league guy. However, look for Barden to slide into Proctor's spot and the Bears shouldn't miss a beat. In fact, it'll likely be an upgrade.
- Hill doesn't have a single senior on this team. "This junior class is just as talented as the one from two years ago, but as of yet, they haven't shown the mental toughness that group had," he said. But it took that group until their senior season to realize its potential. It went onto became the first in school history to win the Big Sky regular-season and postseason title and make an NCAA tournament appearance.
- Sophomore point guard Tevin Svihovec tied for the team lead in scoring and Hill was extremely complimentary about his performance on the trip. "He was our best defender on the trip," Hill said. "He's a tough kid and just wants to compete."
- Junior guard Tate Unruh has made strides -- both emotionally and physically. "When we recruited him, he was 5-foot-11 and 145 pounds. Opey Taylor. He looked like he was 12. He's 6-foot-4 now and you can see he's starting to get that much-needed confidence. In the first game on the trip, they really took it to him -- but he responded so well in the next game. He dug in and got back up after a punch."
- Northern Colorado, despite winning just nine games last season, was the most prolific 3-point shooting team in the nation last season at 44.4 percent overall. Five players made more than 44 percent of their trifectas.
- The X-factor for the team could be 6-foot-5 sophomore forward Tim Huskisson, who averaged 6.5 points as a freshman while starting about half the team's games. "He's the guy who looks like a high-major player when he walks into the gym," Hill said. "He's 6-5 or 6-6 and has long arms. He was effective against Marquette and Iowa State last year, but like your typical freshman, he hit the wall halfway through the season. He needs to play with more confidence."
- The center spot will likely be shared by a pair of juniors: 6-foot-9 Connor Osborne and Emmanuel Addo.
- Another player who could change the complexion of the team is 6-foot junior Paul Garnica, a big-time scorer coming out of high school in San Antonio. "He's so, so talented," Hill said.
- Hill wanted to send along his appreciation to those in the Roundball Club, the major donors for the program, who helped raise the $150,000 tab for the entire trip.