Saturday, February 9, 2008

Chasing the NCAA Tournament Dream

The Big Sky Conference is my favorite conference. More often than not a fan can garner a seat only a few rows from the action. The schools are located in "cool" mountain towns like Bozeman, Flagstaff, Missoula, and Portland. Tickets generally run in the $5.00 to $7.00 range. There has yet to be an at large birth for any school into the NCAA tournament from the Big Sky and this causes the post season tournament to take on an even more paramount importance. However, unlike other leagues which let every school into the their tournament, the Big Sky only allows its top six teams entrance. Additionally, the winner of the league hosts the conference tournament.

The University of Northern Colorado is the newest member of the Big Sky Conference. The most that can be said for Northern Colorado's basketball program is that its abbreviation is the same as one of the most prestigious programs in the country -- UNC. Importantly, Weber State, tonight's opponent for the Bears, is incredibly 4-0 all time against "the" other UNC (that's right the University of North Carolina).

In fact, most of Northern Colorado's tradition is in football where they won a pair of Division II national championships. As a football based league, the Big Sky was an ideal fit for the Bears. Don't forget, the Big Sky was the launching league for both Boise State and Nevada which have gone on to have a national impact in football and basketball respectively in the WAC.

Yet, given the payout, prestige and notoriety that a school can get for making it to the NCAA tournament, Northern Colorado's emphasis has changed to basketball. Their arena, the Butler-Hancock Sports Pavillion has gone a complete overhaul with the addition of chairback seating and updated scoreboards. From 2002 to 2006 the Bears played as an independent and went through a transitional period required to become eligible for NCAA division I basketball membership. A year ago they played in the Big Sky Conference, but were not eligible for postseason play. Two years ago the Bears went 5-24. The head coach was fired and prior to the start of last year former player Tad Boyle was named coach. Last year, although not eligible for postseason play, the Bears in their first season in the Big Sky went 4-24 overall and 2-14 in conference play.

Readers of the blog will recall that since the advent of the modern NCAA tournament in 1948 only five schools that have fielded teams since 1948 have failed to make the field -- St Francis of New York, William and Mary, The Citadel, Northwestern, and Army. The Bears aren't likely to make it in their first year of eligibility. Ultimately, though that's the goal for the Greeley, Colorado school. Northern Colorado is leaps ahead of other division I schools like Utah Valley because Northern Colorado is in a conference that has an automatic bid. All the Bears have to do is find a way to win the Big Sky tournament.

Around the Dee Events Center, banners hang showing the success of tonight's Northern Colorado opponent - Weber State. Weber State has made multiple appearances in the NCAA tournament, twice making it to the regional semifinals and on two other ocassions making it to the second round of the tournament. In 1995, in fact, the Wildcats pulled off one of the biggest upsets in the history of the tournament, beating the other UNC, North Carolina.

The Bears have made some progress this year as they enter the game against Weber State with a record of 11-12 including a 55-52 win over Weber State in Greeley back on January 6th.

However, that is not the case tonight as Weber State takes a 26-24 halftime lead and then utilizes the shooting of Dezmon Harris who scores 20 points to beat the Bears 70-54. The loss drops the Bears into 8th place with a league record of 4-8.

In the parity driven league, former darling Portland State is leading the league with a record of 8-2. After the victory, Weber State is only a game behind the Vikings at 7-3. The top six teams make the Big Sky tournament and Montana and Montana State are tied for 5th/6th at 5-5, the Bears will need to make up 2 games during the final weeks of the season to catch them and keep their dream of making the field of 65 alive.

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