2006-07 Northern Colorado Men's Basketball Preview
Oct. 20, 2006
The 2006-07 season will be a fresh start for the University of Northern Colorado men's basketball team in many ways, as there will be a lot that will be new with the program when the team takes the court this winter. The program has a new conference in the Big Sky, a new coach in Tad Boyle, a nearly new roster that features eight newcomers and a newly-renovated gym in which to play.
With one year left in the reclassification process to Division I, the Bears officially became a member of the Big Sky Conference on July 1 and will play against a full conference schedule this season (although the team is ineligible for the postseason this year before becoming eligible in 2007-08). A conference schedule not only gives the Bears more than just a home and a brand new set of rivals, it also guarantees 16 conference games a season. Playing the past few seasons as a Division I Independent, the team has had to challenge a lot of top teams to fill out its 29-game schedule, including taking on the likes of California, Gonzaga, Iowa State, Kansas, Oklahoma and Syracuse among others. In the three years of the reclassification process the program has combined for only a 19-67 record against the impossibly difficult schedule.
The man that will help lead the team into its new conference is not only starting his career as a head coach, but also returning to his hometown. Boyle, who spent the past six seasons as the associate head coach at Wichita State, returns to Greeley where he was a standout high school player at Greeley Central High School. In high school he led his squad to a state championship during his senior season of 1981, before later playing at the University of Kansas, including a year as captain under legendary coach Larry Brown. Boyle enjoyed coaching stints with Jerry Green at Oregon and Tennessee before joining former Jayhawk teammate Mark Turgeon at Jacksonville State in 1998 and later following Turgeon to Wichita. In his last four years with the Shockers, Boyle helped the squad to four postseason appearances, including three NIT trips and WSU's magical run to the NCAA Sweet 16 in 2006.
"It is great to be able to come home and coach," Boyle said. "I appreciate the opportunity that has been given me. This is going to be both a tremendous challenge and opportunity for me where I am at in my career right now. I have been preparing myself for the last 17 years for this opportunity. I hope to take this program to levels it has never seen before. I don't know how long it will take to win a Big Sky Championship, but I will not stop working until we get there."
Boyle's first team at Northern Colorado will be somewhat of an unknown, as just six members of last year's team return from a squad that was 5-24 overall. Although the number of returnees is not large, the experience that group brings to the table should help the newcomers adjust to the rigors of playing Division I basketball. Four of the returnees were starters last season, including first-team Division I All-Independent selection Sean Taibi, second-team selection Kirk Archibeque, senior guard Matt Kline and senior swingman Dwayne Birden.
The dead-eye shooter Taibi, a junior, etched his name in school record books last season when he knocked down a school record 84 3-pointers (the 22nd highest total in Division I during the regular season), including hitting at least one in all 29 games, becoming the first player in school history to accomplish that feat. Taibi led the team in scoring (15.3 points/game) and ranked 18th nationally in 3-point field goal percentage (43.5%) and 38th nationally in 3-pointers per game (2.9). As consistent as Taibi was on the outside, fellow junior Archibeque provided the Bears a threat in the low post. A first-team Division I All-Independent pick as a redshirt freshman in 2004-05, Archibeque started 23 times as a sophomore and ranked fifth among independent players in both field goal percentage (52.5%) and rebounding (7.1). After struggling on the boards as a freshman, he became a more consistent rebounder last season and netted eight double-doubles during the year.
"Kirk and Sean will provide our team invaluable experience, and I expect them both to help our seven freshmen acclimate to Division I college basketball," Boyle said. "Sean is as good a catch-and-shoot player as I have ever coached, and we need to get him as many open looks at the basketball as possible. Kirk has really impressed me with his work ethic and coachability. He gives our team a low-post presence that we desperately need."
Despite being a true shooting guard, Kline stepped into the point guard position last season and dished out an impressive 139 assists (4.8/game), which nearly eclipsed his career assists total entering the year and put him in the program's career top-10 list. Kline hit his stride near the end of the season as he averaged 5.9 assists/game over the final 16 contests of the year, and dished out a career-high 10 helpers twice during the season. In his first season with the program after transferring from Jacksonville College in Texas, Birden showed athleticism by ranking second on the team in rebounding (4.7/game) and blocks (13 total) and fourth in scoring (7.5/game). He was at his best in the second part of the season when he averaged nearly 10 points and 6.5 rebounds per game over the final 14 games of the campaign.
Also returning for the Bears are senior postman Cory Lowe and junior guard Thanasi Panagiotakopoulos, whose 17-letter last name is the longest in school history. Lowe played in 28 games in 2005-06, scoring in double-figures four times, including a career-high 16 points against Northern Arizona. Panagiotakopoulos, a native of Phoenix, made the most of a match-up with NAU as well, scoring a career-best 19 points in a game played in front of many family and friends. Panagiotakopoulos averaged 2.0 assists/game during the season, but that number rose to nearly 3.0 assists/game when he played 10 or more minutes per game.
"The six returning players from last season's team are all great young men," Boyle said. "I believe they have and will continue to represent our program well. Being a first-year head coach, I want our three seniors (Kline, Birden and Lowe) to have a positive experience - to finish their college careers with a degree in hand and a good taste in their mouth in regards to the direction of our basketball program."
Joining that cast of six returnees will be eight newcomers, seven of which signed after Boyle was hired in late April. The one player who signed in November with the former coaching staff and decided to honor his commitment is Darren Moore of Chino Hills, Calif. Moore improved throughout his prep career and finished as one of the top-ranked guards on the west coast. He was a second-team SCIBCA/AAF Division IIAA selection in California as a senior. Another highly-touted signee is Tommie Clark out of Romulus High School in Detroit. He averaged 16.8 points and 6.5 rebounds per game while playing a high-flying brand of basketball in the Motor City.
A third out-of-state guard/forward is Minnesota's Jefferson Mason, who averaged over 21 points per game as a senior at Cooper High. A trio of in-state players will also be used in the backcourt including Devon Beitzel, a first-team All-Colorado selection as a senior, Will Figures, a point guard who averaged 19.8 points per game and led his team to a state semifinal berth in 2006, and walk-on Terry Anderson, who is transferring into the program from Trinidad Junior College.
Knowing the talent that can be found in his own hometown, Boyle also added a Greeley product in Greeley West High swingman Neal Kingman. Kingman averaged 17.7 points, 8.0 rebounds and 5.0 assists/game as a senior on his way to Northern Conference Player of the Year honors. Rounding out the frontcourt players is Indiana's Chris Kaba, a 6'8" forward who showed his defensive skills at Andrean High School. "I believe we have signed a tremendous recruiting class, especially given the timing of taking over this program," said Boyle, who was named the 17th head coach in program history on April 25. "We have addressed needs at most every position, and have added tremendous depth as well. Anytime you have eight newcomers on a basketball team, you are going to have a lot of question marks. From my experience, every new player adjusts to Division I basketball at a different rate. Of our eight new players, some will progress faster than others and that is to be expected. As a group, I am pleased with their athleticism and speed. However, the one thing they all have in common is a love for the game of basketball."
Despite the fact that the team has shaken its independent status and does not have to play 29 non-conference games this season, it still has a challenging slate of opponents, including the other four Division I teams from Colorado. The Bears will match-up with local rival Colorado State in Fort Collins, the University of Denver in a home-and-home series, Jeff Bzdelik's Air Force team in Greeley for the first since 1978, as well as playing at Colorado. The Bears also have non-conference games at Ball State, Purdue, Arizona State, Bowling Green and Eastern Michigan before beginning conference play on Dec. 28 when they host Weber State. Northern Colorado will get to play its home games in a newly renovated Butler-Hancock Sports Pavilion. The building, which opened in 1976, got a major overhaul during the summer, including chair back seating, a new scoreboard and sound system and a cosmetic facelift among other things. The project was part of an overall $16 million dollar student fee referendum that will eventually see the addition of a practice gym that will also benefit the Bears basketball program.
"The newly-renovated Butler-Hancock Sports Pavilion will be a tremendous benefit to our basketball program in many ways," Boyle said. "First and foremost our fans will now have a comfortable and intimate environment to watch college basketball up-close and personal. There truly will not be a bad seat in the building. The most important part of all the renovations is the practice facility. It will allow our student-athletes the opportunity to have a place to workout year-round in order to improve themselves and ultimately improve our basketball program."
No matter what the Bears record is at the end of the season, there is no doubt the program is headed in the right direction as the team begins its inaugural season of Big Sky Conference play.
"We may be more like cubs than bears at the beginning of the season simply because we don't know what we have yet," Boyle said. "But we'll come together and be Bears in the end. We will use each day this year to get better and if we can do that, success will be inevitable. There are three things I can promise that our team will do on the floor - (1) play hard, (2) play smart and (3) play together."
If Boyle's team can successful do those things, fans will pack Butler-Hancock Sports Pavilion as the team helps write a new history for Northern Colorado basketball.
"I want people to invest in Northern Colorado basketball," Boyle added. "It may not happen right away but four to five years down the road there is no doubt that the investment will pay huge returns."