by Dominic Ferrucci
Weber State will tip off Thursday night for the first game of their last Big Sky series when the Northern Colorado Bears visit the Dee Events Center. Northern Colorado, coached by Steve Smiley, come into the two game series with a 10-9 record sitting at seventh place in the Big Sky standings. This is the first season with Smiley at the helm for the Bears, but he has ties to Weber State.
Before serving as an associate head coach on Jeff Linder’s staff at Northern Colorado the last four seasons prior to 2021, Smiley was a part of Randy Rahe’s staff for two years. In that time, Weber State won nearly 40 and reached the NCAA tournament. Smiley is aiming to channel some of the success he felt as an assistant. Thus far he has had no luck. Entering this season, Northern Colorado had strung together three straight seasons of 20 or more wins. Despite the regular season success, the Bears have only reached the NCAA tournament once. Last season, Northern Colorado entered the Big Sky tournament as the two seed, before the coronavirus ultimately derailed their hopes at reaching the Big Dance.
This season has not been easy for all basketball programs as it has been difficult to establish any sort of flow in the midst of the crazy season. For Northern Colorado, their circumstances have not been any exception. The Bears tipped off the season on December 9, 2020. It was two weeks after many schools had their first game against a Division I opponent. In February, the Bears were impacted by the coronavirus both within their program and their opponents.
The positive tests resulted in Northern Colorado playing in just three games throughout February. Only two of them came against Division I opponents in their series against Portland State this past weekend. The Bears split that series with Portland State, winning the first game of the set and dropping the second. Northern Colorado has struggled to find consistency, but they have shown times where it appears that they can beat just about anyone in the Big Sky. Look no further than the Bears’ win against first place Eastern Washington back in late January as an example. Northern Colorado defeated the Eagles thanks to a pair of free throws with one second left. To this date, it was the most recent loss for Eastern Washington. The Bears also owned a halftime lead in the second leg of that series with EWU, but ultimately ended up falling. With this being said, Northern Colorado is not a team that Weber State should take lightly. However, there are flaws that Coach Rahe and his staff can exploit for the Wildcats’ success.
Northern Colorado’s battle to find consistency is highlighted on the offensive side of the floor. They average just under 70 points a game. The Wildcats, in contrast, rank in the top ten at 83 points a contest. Many of the Bears’ woes can be attributed to their struggles at the free throw line shooting a Big Sky worst 65.2 percent in conference play. The Bears also rank in the bottom four of all conference members in turnover percentage, offensive rebounding percentage, and offensive efficiency. Still, Weber State will need to be careful to not approach the series with a mindset that they can outscore this Northern Colorado ball club.
The Bears take away Weber State’s best attribute: the three-ball. Northern Colorado ranks in the top 30 nationally in allowing opponents to shoot just 30.1 percent from downtown. That’s good for the best clip in the Big Sky. In their most recent win, the Bears held Portland State to just 33 percent from the field and 35 percent from behind the arc. The Wildcats found massive success in both road wins at Sacramento State last week. They scored 94 points in the paint over the span of the series. If Northern Colorado takes away the three, Weber State should not be afraid to dump it inside. They would likely have a size advantage.
Steve Smiley’s squad returned 57 percent of minutes played last season and half of last year’s scoring. The Bears are led by Junior standout Bodie Hume, who is the team’s statistical leader in points, steals and blocks. Hume is one of three starters averaging over 13 points a game and has scored in double figures in all but two games this season, one of which was in the last outing against Portland State. Hume entered the year as a Big Sky preseason first team selection and he is shooting a career high 45.8 percent from the field.
Fellow Colorado native and backcourt companion Daylen Koutz also contributes 13.7 points and 3.5 rebounds a game. Koutz, a transfer from Colorado, will likely take the majority of the Bears’ shots alongside Hume. The 6’4” guard will look to continue a scoring streak that saw 19 and 23 points respectively in last week’s series for the Bears.
Junior Matt Johnson rounds out the double-digit scorers for Northern Colorado as he holds averages of 13.4 points a game on 51 percent shooting. Johnson also has the capability to light it up from beyond the arc where he is shooting 48 percent on the season. His three-point shooting success has helped Johnson have 11 straight double digit scoring outings with at least three 3-pointers in eight of those contests.
Junior forward Kur Jockuch leads the Bears in rebounding with 7.3 a game. Jockuch ranks top ten in the conference in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage and enters the series coming off three straight double-doubles. The Bears will likely have sophomore guard Tre’Shon Smoots back after missing the last three games due to COVID protocols. Smoots ranks fifth on the team in minutes played and has started five games this season. Junior guard Sam Matsen, who also missed time, will also likely contribute and may round out the starting five, as he has been a starter in 12 of the Bears 19 games. Both Matsen and Smoots average less than seven points a contest.
Weber State will look to avenge two losses that came at the hands of the Bears last season including a one-point loss at home. The 65-64 loss was Northern Colorado’s first win in Ogden in program history and came on a game-winning layup with just 3.5 seconds to play. The Wildcats have not beaten Northern Colorado in the last three meetings, but own the overall series 18-9. The first game of the series will tip at 7 PM MST before another noon tip-off on Saturday for the regular season finale.
Keys to the Series
1. Get Bassett Going
- Dontay Bassett returned to the lineup last week after missing a pair of games, but was not much of a factor in the scoring department. With the size of Northern Colorado, this series is a great chance to build Bassett’s confidence ahead of conference tournament play.
2. Own Home Court
- This will be the first road game that Northern Colorado has played in over a month. The Wildcats need to take advantage of the familiar rims and defend their home. The Dee Events Center is a place where they have not lost all season.
3. Finish Games
- Northern Colorado’s struggles at the free throw line can be exposed in a late game down the stretch. The Wildcats need to continue to display their clutch play in crunch time and finish games if it is a close game situation.
Featured image courtesy Weber State Athletics