February 12, 2013

Svihovec continues to grow into Bears' point role


GREELEY -- Tevin Svihovec walked off the floor smiling and joking with his teammates amidst high fives and backslaps. The jovial mood continued in the locker room afterward, with Svihovec right in the middle of things.

There was good reason for the celebratory mood last month, as the Bears, led by Svihovec, had just finished off the second of back-to-back convincing wins against Portland State and Eastern Washington at home.

Northern Colorado had won those two games by a combined 33 points, and Svihovec had played a crucial role in running the offense in both wins, finishing with 11 assists compared to just four turnovers in the two-game span. He controlled the Bears' offense with ease, finding teammates when they were hot and dictating the pace of the game—exactly what a coach wants to see out of his point guard.

Those two games were perhaps Svihovec's two best efforts of the season, at least from a pure point guard perspective. His control of the offense and his work on the defensive end lifted up the rest of the Bears. In less than a full season at the helm of the Northern Colorado offense, Svihovec has seemingly mastered some of the more nuanced aspects to being a point guard at the NCAA Division I level.

But, as with almost all things, this mastery didn't come easy.

"There's a lot more to [playing] point guard than just getting people the ball," Svihovec says. "The biggest thing for me was understanding time and court awareness—what we need as a team; what we have to do as a team; how much time is left; how much are we up by. Those are the things a really good point guard knows and manages really well."

Svihovec thinks in that manner now, but that wasn't always the case, because that wasn't always his role. He came to Northern Colorado three years ago, and, after taking a redshirt season in his true freshman campaign, he initially found room in head coach B.J. Hill's rotation as a shooting guard, playing primarily on the wing and looking more for his own shot than setting up his teammates.

The 6-foot-2-inch, 190-pound guard from Kingwood, Texas, came off the bench through his first seven games with the Bears and averaged fewer than five points per game, although he still averaged almost 18 minutes per contest.

But, once Svihovec got his first starting nod in a home game against Johnson & Wales, he showed the Butler-Hancock faithful how capable he could be on offense. He poured in 11 points against the Wildcats, his first double-digit scoring performance of his career, and then started every game the rest of the way last season and quickly became one of the Bears' best scoring options, using his strength and ability to get inside the lane to his advantage.

There were still growing pains, though. He scored just two points in his each of his next two starts (against Denver and on the road against nationally-ranked Marquette) before realizing his potential with 14 consecutive double-digit scoring games for the Bears.

Included in that stretch was a pair of 30-plus point efforts that illustrated just how effective Svihovec's game, full of hesitation dribbles and herky-jerky head fakes, could be.

In a 99-94 overtime loss on the road to Idaho State, Svihovec became the first Northern Colorado player since Devon Beitzel to score at least 30 points in a game as he dropped exactly that amount on 11-of-16 shooting.

That offensive display also tied the school's Division I single-game scoring record for a freshman (Kirk Archibeque scored 30 vs. Texas State in 2004).

Then, for an encore, Svihovec scored more points in a single game than any player ever had who wore the blue and gold. He dropped 34 points inside Butler-Hancock against Cal Poly last season and broke not only Northern Colorado's Division I freshman single-game scoring mark but also the program's all-time Division I single-season record.

His 34 points against the Mustangs bested the 33-point night Will Figures authored as a senior in 2010 campaign.

There is a lot of reasons Svihovec was able to immediately emerge as one of the Bears' top players. Chief among them, if you listen to Svihovec and Hill, was the way he was coached prior to his move to Greeley.

So, let's go back.

Svihovec was born in Fargo, N.D., and still lists Minot, N.D., as his home town on Facebook. But when he was just a 6-month old his family moved south to Kingwood, Texas, where he would grow into a key cog in a program that churns out annually excellent high school basketball players.

He played for head coach Royce Huseman at Kingwood—Huseman is one of the most successful and well-respected high school coaches in the Texas—and the two combined to win four straight district titles while Svihovec garnered back-to-back all-region honors and was named the district's most valuable player.

Svihovec says it was that experience under Huseman and at Kingwood that allowed him to fit in so seamlessly into a Division I roster.

"I have to give a lot of credit to [Coach Huseman]," Svihovec says. "He was my high school coach for four years, [and] he was really good defensively. I kind of had to put the work in offensively on my own, but that program helps you out a ton. It really builds guys' awareness of the game. I love Kingwood."

And it wasn't just Svihovec who loved Kingwood either.

Hill, who was then a top assistant at Northern Colorado under then-head coach Tad Boyle, was looking for high school players who would come to Greeley from winning prep programs and who understood what a winning culture looked like.

A player as talented as Svihovec, coming out of a program as solid as Kingwood, was exactly what he and Boyle were looking for.

"It's something we've really tried to address in recruiting is getting guys from winning programs, in an attempt to change the culture here," Hill says. "When you get a guy from Kingwood and somebody who has played for Coach Huseman, it has an immediate effect.

"Tevin has been able to play right away, and I think that's the major reason. It doesn't have anything to do with us here. It was the fact that he had been coached at a really high level for four years in high school, along with his own work ethic and the fact that he had a body that was ready to compete at the Division I level. But most of it was the fact that he was ready to go, coaching-wise."

Fortunately for Hill and the Bears, Svihovec was interested in leaving his home state to play basketball. Helping in that interest was the immediate connection he made with Hill, his primary recruiter, saying Hill's straight-forward personality is what drew him to Greeley.

Then, once on campus, Svihovec immediately began making an impact on the coaching staff.

"Tevin was as impressive from the get-go as any freshman we've had," Hill says. "He was neck-and-neck with Elliott Lloyd (then a sophomore; now not with the team), pushing for that starting point guard position as a true freshman.

"The fact that he was well coached enabled him to separate himself from other freshmen, defensively. He understood defensive concepts and had a value for defense. That's pretty rare for a true freshman. The other thing is his body and athleticism allowed him to be an impact guy and play right away at our level. A lot of times guys need to build up their bodies and get in the weight room. His body and athleticism, along with his schooling, allowed him to be an impact guy right away for us."

Unfortunately, Svihovec was not able to compete for that point guard spot during his true freshman season after a broken right foot suffered in the preseason put him out for the year. Instead, he was forced to watch from the sidelines as the Bears ran through the Big Sky Conference and advanced to their first NCAA Tournament.

Still, Svihovec says he took plenty away from the experience.

"It was huge," he says. "Sometimes when you play, you don't even get to see everything that's going on. Getting to sit back and watch those guys was really good. The way Devon [Beitzel] competed all the time … like Coach Hill says, 'You might not have liked him, but you respected him.' Those guys were huge."

It was his schooling at the high school level, along with the experience he gained from watching that 2010-11 squad operate, that allowed Svihovec to average 11 points per game during his redshirt-freshman campaign.

Those offensive numbers then set the expectations bar pretty high for Svihovec heading into this season, and the Bears were picked to finish third in the Big Sky Conference in a preseason poll of the league's coaches. Svihovec quickly discovered, though, that point guard play can look quite different for a team with expectations as high as Northern Colorado's.

Feeling the weight of the pressure, Svihovec and the rest of the Bears struggled a bit out of the gate, dropping six of their first seven games. But as the season has progressed, Northern Colorado's offense, and Svihovec's game, have picked up.

"Last year, there wasn't as much pressure on him to act like a point guard," Hill says, "because when we moved him there—not that we were out of it, but we were struggling—I don't think there was nearly as much pressure. Coming into this year, there's a lot more pressure on this team to achieve, and he's surrounded by guys who can score.

"I think you saw some of his lack of experience and decision making from the point guard spot [early on this year]. It's a whole different deal catching the ball on the wing than it is bringing the ball down and having to make decisions. I think that's something [in his game] that got exposed a little bit early in the year, but it's something he's really improved on here just in the last three or four weeks."

Svihovec's confidence has grown more and more as the season has gone on. At the time of publication he was enjoying a three-game stretch that saw him dish out 14 assists and commit just five turnovers. That stretch also gave fans a glimpse of the offensive talent he still has, as he dropped a team-high 16 points in a last-second loss on the road to Northern Arizona on Jan. 24.

Svihovec was clutch in that loss to the Lumberjacks, too, banking in a deep 3-pointer to tie the game with just four seconds left before NAU ended it with a heroic shot of its own.

"He's grown a lot," Northern Colorado junior guard Paul Garnica says. "Last year, he was a straight scorer. This year he defends, scores and he passes the ball. He does everything this year. If Tate [Unruh] hits a three, Tevin will try and go right back to him—same with me. He kind of knows who has a hot hand and who doesn't. That's what a good point guard is supposed to do."

With about half of the conference season still to go, Svihovec will have plenty more opportunities to display both his newly-honed point guard skills and his knack for scoring points.

"We need to learn from that slow start and keep playing defense the way we are," Svihovec says. "If we play defense and take our patience on offense, that's when we're scoring. That's what really hurts people. When [opposing teams] have to guard for 20-plus seconds and then you hit a shot or get fouled, that really drains them. That's what we're doing really well right now, and that's what I hope we continue to do."