CU Buffs could be passed by University of Northern Colorado on road to NCAA Big Dance

We confess. We've been paying so much attention to the CU Buffs' chances of taking part in March Madness that we've given short shrift to the University of Northern Colorado Bears.

UNC's had a mighty impressive season -- one that's earned the squad a marginally easier route to the Big Dance than the one faced by the Buffs.

How so? The Buffs are widely thought to need victories over both Iowa State and Kansas State to reach their goal. And while the Bears must notch two wins as well in the Big Sky tourney to take the next step, both contests will take place on their home court -- a marked advantage.

First up is Northern Arizona, who UNC will face at 8 p.m. tonight. If the Bears come out on top, they'll return to the Butler-Hancock Sports Pavilion in Greeley to challenge either Montana or Weber State for an invite.

Get the details below in this mammoth UNC release, which is capable of helping all of us do a little catching up.

Top-seeded Bears get to work against hot-shooting Lumberjacks

GREELEY -- Northern Colorado basketball has accomplished a lot in the last month or so, but the real work begins Tuesday night in the semifinals of the Banner Health North Colorado Medical Center Big Sky Championship at Butler-Hancock Sports Pavilion.

The Bears (19-10, 13-3 Big Sky) wrapped up their first Big Sky regular-season title last week with a convincing 84-54 victory against Sacramento State. That allowed B.J. Hill's program to soak in some history and celebrate a great regular-season.

It also gifted Northern Colorado with the top seed in this year's tournament, affording it the right to host Tuesday and Wednesday's semifinals and finals, and dream a little more about qualifying for its NCAA Division I Tournament appearance.

The Bears will begin their "second season" Tuesday against fourth-seeded Northern Arizona (19-11, 9-7) looking for just their second postseason win since 1994.

A win against the Lumberjacks would move Northern Colorado to Wednesday's final against either second-seeded Montana or third-seed Weber State.

Game details

Game 30: Northern Colorado (19-10; 13-3 Big Sky) vs. Northern Arizona (19-11, 9-7 Big Sky) When: 8 p.m. Tuesday, March 8 Where: Greeley, Colorado -- Butler-Hancock Sports Pavilion (2,992) Coaches: The Bears' B.J. Hill (19-10; 13-3 Big Sky) vs. the Lumberjacks' Mike Adras (191-161; 99-83 Big Sky) All-time series: Northern Arizona leads 7-6, with the first meeting in 1983. Northern Colorado has won five consecutive in Greeley TV: Altitude (Jay McMillan, Rich Winter, Maya Starks) Radio: KFKA-AM 1310 (Troy Coverdale) Stream: Stats:

Series history

1983-84 Northern Arizona L 81-71 2005-06 Northern Arizona L, 88-78 2005-06 at Northern Arizona L, 63-52 2006-07 Northern Arizona* W, 88-86 2006-07 at Northern Arizona L, 89-77 2007-08 at Northern Arizona* L, 86-70 2007-08 Northern Arizona* W, 80-77 2008-09 Northern Arizona* W, 81-79 2008-09 at Northern Arizona* L, 67-64 2009-10 at Northern Arizona* W, 75-66 2009-10 Northern Arizona* W, 70-63 (OT) 2010-11 at Northern Arizona* L, 65-54 2010-11 Northern Arizona* W, 72-71

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 championship -- its first and the school's first regular-season title since joining the NCAA Division I ranks.

* Northern Colorado is ranked No. 114 in the latest NCAA RPI report, coming in only behind Big Sky-team Montana (113). Weber State (128) and Northern Arizona (167) are the only other league teams in the top 200. Montana State comes in at 256.

* The Bears ended last season ranked 124th in the NCAA's final RPI report, and that was their highest end-of-season rating since beginning play at the NCAA Divsion I level. Only Weber State (94) and Montana (101) finished higher in 2010 among Big Sky teams.

* 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 (18), rebounding margin (31) and 3-pointers made per game (28).

* Northern Colorado is 12-0 at home this season, 25-2 in Greeley over the past two seasons and 35-6 at home since 2008.

* 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 64 of his last 69 free throws and enters Tuesday's game as the nation's fifth-best free throw shooter at 91.0 percent on the year. Mississippi's Chris Warren (93.5) leads the country in free-throw shooting.

* Beitzel is the Big Sky's best scorer through the Bears' 29 games this season (21.0). 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 fifth-best three-point shooter through the Bears' 29 games, pouring in long balls at a 44.1 percent clip. Teammate Elliott Lloyd ranks seventh in the Big Sky (42.0) in the category.

* The Bears finished 25-8 in 2010 and ended second in the Big Sky Conference regular-season standings. Those 25 wins were the most for any basketball team (any division) in the history of Northern Colorado Athletics. The previous best came in 1989, when the Bears (NCAA Division II) ended the year at 24-6.

* Northern Colorado's 24 regular-season victories last year were the most by any Big Sky Conference team since Weber State won 24 during the 2002-03 season.

* At 1,041 all-time victories (107 seasons) Northern Colorado basketball is the second-winningest program in school history (NC baseball has 1,423).

Postseason points to ponder

* Northern Colorado will begin play Tuesday night in its third consecutive NCAA Division I postseason (2009, 2010 and 2011).

* 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 9-26 all-time in postseason games, with its best effort coming in 1992, when it finished 2-1 at the North Central Conference (NCC) Tournament.

Big Sky Tourney talk

* With its 85-72 home victory against Portland State on Saturday, Feb. 5, Northern Colorado became the first Big Sky team this season to clinch a spot in this year's Big Sky Championship. Montana, Weber State, Northern Arizona, Montana State and Eastern Washington later joined the Bears in the conference's postseason field.

* Northern Colorado's 77-74 victory against Idaho State on Monday, Feb. 28, assured the Bears of at least a share of the 2011 Big Sky Championship (their first league title).

* The Bears 84-54 victory against Sacramento State on Wednesday, March 2, gave them the outright Big Sky regular-season title and the right to host this week's Banner Health North Colorado Medical Center Big Sky Championship semifinals and finals at Butler-Hancock Sports Pavilion.

* Northern Colorado, which was first NCAA Division I postseason eligible in 2007, has now qualified for postseason play in three consecutive seasons (2009, 2010 and 2011).

* Northern Colorado was the fifth seed in the 2009 championship but fell to Idaho State in a quarterfinal game in Pocatello, Idaho. The Bears were the second seed last year but lost to Montana in the semifinals in Ogden, Utah.


* Senior Devon Beitzel, one of the top scorers in the country this year who led the Big Sky in scoring for a Northern Colorado squad (19-10, 13-3 Big Sky) that won its first league championship since 1989, was honored Thursday, March 3, as the Bears' first-ever Big Sky Most Valuable Player.

* He joined Montana's Brian Qvale and Northern Arizona's Cameron Jones as unanimous First Team selections, while Weber State's Kyle Bullinger, Scott Bamforth and Montana's Will Cherry rounded out the First Team.

* Beitzel also joined former Bears Jabril Banks (2008-09) and Will Figures (2009-10), who were also All-Big Sky First Team selections as seniors.

* Beitzel was a second-team selection last year and an honorable mention pick the year before, as a sophomore.

* Northern Colorado senior Neal Kingman earned a spot on the All-Big Sky Second Team on Thursday's announcement, and senior Chris Kaba received Honorable Mention. Those were the first selections to either team for either player.

Home sweet home

* Northern Colorado's 84-54 victory against Sacramento State on Wednesday, March 2, improved its home record this season to 12-0, which is just the program's third undefeated home season in its 107-year history. The Bears also finished with a spotless record in Greeley in the 1948-49 season (10-0) and the 1926-27 campaign (8-0).

* The Bears are 25-2 in Greeley over the past two seasons and 35-6 at home since 2008.

* Northern Colorado is also an impressive 105 games over .500 (276-171) all-time since it began playing in Butler-Hancock Sports Pavilion (then Butler-Hancock Hall) in 1974.

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' game against New Mexico State on Saturday, Feb. 19, was the seventh of seven guaranteed TV games this year for Northern Colorado, and NC's game against Northern Arizona on Tuesday night (Altitude) will be the program's record-eighth appearance on TV this season.

* A win against the Lumberjacks will move the Bears to a ninth TV game on Wednesday night (ESPN2) in the Big Sky Championship final.

* The Bears' previous most TV appearances came during the 2004-2005 season, when the Bears were transitioning to NCAA Divsion 1.

* Northern Colorado is 8-31 all-time in televised contests and 6-6 in its last 12 televised games.

Rewriting the history books

* The Bears's 84-54 victory against Sacramento State on Wednesday, March 2, gave Northern Colorado its most Division I conference wins in five seasons playing at the nation's top level. The school's previous mark was by last year's team (12-4).

* Northern Colorado's overall record for conference wins was set in 1989, when the 1988-89 Bears finished 24-6 and 14-4 in North Central Conference play and advanced to the NCAA Division II Tournament.

* Northern Colorado senior Devon Beitzel also has worked his name into the school's Division I record book this season.

* Beitzel has established the new mark for points scored in a single Division I season (610), he made a school-record 16-of-16 free-throws in a 77-74 road win at Idaho State, has set new highs for field goals made (182) and attempted (374) in a single season as well as tied the mark for 3-pointers attempted (193) in single season.

* And Beitzel's nearing the school Division I record for points-per-game average (he's at 21.0, nearly four more than Will Figures' 16.6 average in 2009-10) and single-season free throw percentage (he's at 91.0; Figures made 87.8 percent of his free throws last season).

* Beitzel already owns Division I program records in field-goals made in a game (12), free throws made in a game (15), free throws without a miss in a single game (12), consecutive free throws made (35) and steals in a season (52) and now

More from our Sports archive: "CU Buffs basketball team best since Chauncey Billups glory days after defeating Kansas State."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
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