Leadership will be a big factor for the University of Northern Colorado men’s and women’s basketball programs this season.
Coach Steve Smiley and graduate student Daylen Kountz represented the men’s program at the Big Sky Basketball Tip Off event, while the women were represented by sophomore coach Kristen Mattio and junior Hannah Simental.
Both players were named to their respective All-Conference teams, with Simental returning as one of the league’s top shooters and Kountz as one of the nation’s top scorers.
The men are a strong contender in the league, picked to finish No. 2, thanks to the return of Kountz and fellow graduate student Matt Johnson.
Skyline Sports’ Colter Nuanez said on the show that he was not surprised Montana State was chosen to repeat. The Bobcats fired several players from the championship chase, including MVP Jubrile Belo, but Nuanez said the next five teams — including the Bears — have a good chance of upsetting the defending defending champions.
“I think the race to dethrone Montana State is about half the league,” Nuanez said. “Northern Colorado is always dangerous in the way they take the 3-point shot and chase you off the 3-point line. Daylen Kountz is definitely the top comeback scorer in the conference and one of the top comeback scorers in the United States of America.
Additionally, UNC discovered the system that works and played a similar style of basketball under Tad Boyle, BJ Hill, Jeff Linder and now Smiley.
“If you can find that main guy on the ball, get him to attack the rim and surround him with shooters, you have a pretty good formula, especially in the Big Sky conference,” Nuanez said.
Smiley said the experience of advancing to the title match should help the team this year. He noted Montana State, which earned a berth in the 2021 championship and lost. Then, in 2022, he won it all.
Explaining what it’s like to be in a championship game and trying to replicate the environment is one thing, but having the experience goes a long way.
“We can be good any day, but you have to be good three days in a row,” Smiley said. “That’s the challenge for our guys. … That’s the most important thing: that we at least got there and that we had the ups and downs and that we had a good race.
Kountz moved into a bigger leadership role, especially with Bodie Hume playing overseas. He knows the expectations and the course of the program, so it’s his turn to help the young players to integrate and give the best of themselves.
He works alongside Johnson and Smiley to build a strong culture and withstand the pressure that comes with college basketball.
“It is very clear who the older players are. It’s very clear who the best players are. It’s a major responsibility,” Smiley said. “My job is to try to teach them as much as possible so they can deal with this. I think they did a great job in that regard. It’s not just about being a good player. It’s like, ‘OK, how can we get the rest of the team moving in the right direction?’ »
The UNC women were chosen to finish No. 7 in the conference by members of the media and No. 9 by coaches. As on the men’s side, however, there is a lot of parity and everyone is beatable.
The Bears beat conference favorite Idaho State twice last year. Despite being selected to finish in the middle of the pack, Mattio has previously called the Bengals’ program “the gold standard” for its historic success.
Additionally, Southern Utah left the conference. This provides teams with a Thursday-Saturday schedule and a late December start, and the reduced risk of COVID-19 means there aren’t expected to be 20 games on Monday.
Like the men, Mattio has a similar setup with his team leaders. She has a group of players who operate with excellence and have an “overachieving” mindset.
“They’re not just driven by wins and losses,” Mattio said. “There’s a family side to the team, then there’s an academic side, and that’s the big picture. We have this 360 degree overview of our program, how we operate and how we care for each other.
The Bears have lost a lot of seniors and a few trades, so it’s a young team. Mattio knows growing the culture she wants doesn’t happen overnight, but she’s happy with the progress she’s made so far.
Simental, who is in his third year at UNC, has also taken on a leadership role. She was already a player that her teammates and even her coaches respected. However, this position has grown.
She likes to be available to help new players, answer questions and just check in on them.
“I’ve been in this position,” Simental said. “When someone walks in and asks, ‘Hey, how are you?’ and you can just talk, sometimes it means the world.
As for the game itself, UNC held its first real summer practices since COVID began. Simental said she grew stronger and improved some of the finer aspects of her skills, while others settled down.
UNC would like to continue their defensive dominance, often holding opponents below their season averages, while improving offensive efficiency.
He had a run late in the season, winning four in a row before losing to Northern Arizona by five points in the tournament semifinals.
“We know to be great in this conference you have to be in the top three offensively and defensively,” Mattio said. “I think (a strength) is really setting the tone for both sides. We thought we did that last season, but we didn’t accumulate enough points at times to really create that separation that we needed to come away with those wins.
The UNC women will host Chadron State for a show at 6 p.m. Friday. Their official season opener is set for 6 p.m. Monday against northern New Mexico.
The men will travel to No. 3 Houston for the season opener at 6 p.m. Monday. Their home opener is scheduled for 6 p.m. Nov. 11 against Texas A&M Commerce.