B.J. Hill is the head men's basketball coach at the University of Northern Colorado, the 15th seed in the NCAA tournament's West Region. The Bears face No. 2 San Diego State on Thursday.
To be honest, my guys and I are relishing the chance that’s in front of us this week in Tucson.
We know we have a huge battle on our hands—San Diego State is a great program, and I’ve got all the respect in the world for what coach Steve Fisher and his staff have done there—but if there is one word that describes Northern Colorado basketball, it would be “underdog.”
When we step foot on the court Thursday afternoon, we’ll be continuing what we started five years ago. We won’t be embarking into uncharted territory, as many probably think.
Let me explain.
We’re a team full of guys with chips on their shoulders, and that starts at the bottom of our program’s roster and continues on up to its head coach, me. To a man, we’ve always had to prove ourselves and fight and claw for everything we’ve earned.
Take senior guard Devon Beitzel, for example. He was one of the best scorers in Colorado high school history in Lafayette, but when it came time to make a decision about playing college ball, his options were slim. He got a couple sniffs from some schools back east, but nothing serious. For the most part the college basketball world took one look at Devon’s tiny frame and perceived slow shot and turned the other cheek.
So he decided to join our program when it was in its infancy—his true freshman year was our first at the Division I level—and he quickly found himself a duck out of water. He even considered transferring after he sat as a redshirt during his first year on campus.
But he fought and worked hard and forged himself into one of the best players in the country. That’s not a misprint. As I write this, he’s 12th in the country in scoring at 21.4 points a game, and he’s the nation’s ninth-best free-throw shooter.
He’s also one of 10 finalists for the Lowe’s Senior CLASS Award, mostly for his stellar GPA in Greeley and for the amazing and inspiring story of his upbringing.
Devon is a great example of what Northern Colorado basketball is all about. Many thought he had no business on an NCAA Division I basketball court—just like many across the country are probably laughing at “little old UNC” as they fill out their brackets—but here he is, the leader of a team with as legitimate a chance as any of becoming just the fifth No. 15 seed to knock off a No. 2 seed in NCAA tournament history.
And Devon is just one of the members of our program who elicited an “Is that all you got?” from college basketball scouts across the country.
Senior Neal Kingman? He was 6'5", 180 pounds soaking wet coming out of Greeley West High School, and he had to listen to classmates and friends make fun of him as he decided to join the lowly Bears across town instead of heading off to a bigger and better school.
How about senior Chris Kaba? He starred on the same AAU team as Luke Harangody, but all the attention was on the future Notre Dame star when scouts came to their neighborhood.
And then there’s me.
I’ll be honest. A lot of people in the country thought I wasn’t even good enough to be a low-level junior-college coach when I was making my way across the Midwest’s JUCO circuit. I tried and tried to get some head coaching spots in Iowa and Kansas but couldn’t even get a sniff.
These were not great positions I was trying to snag.
But I fought and clawed and dug deep and finally saw the hard work pay off last spring when my good friend and mentor Tad Boyle earned a chance to coach at Colorado.
So when we tip it up against San Diego State on Thursday, we’re just taking the next step—the next step for a program that has been fighting for respect since it decided to reclassify to Division I in 2003. We’ve taken our lumps along the way—and maybe we’ll take one Thursday—but we love being the underdog.
It’s fueled me and my assistant coaches, given fire to our players and allowed us to get to where we are now. It hasn’t been easy, but if it had been, we wouldn’t be here.
We’d be watching the Madness this week instead of getting a chance to see how we match up against one of the nation’s best teams. We know we belong here. We’re ready to prove it.