What Hill learned: "Last year we had five guys going through the same adjustment all at once. The year before, we had four seniors and last year's group thought they knew what to expect last year, but they didn't really know. I think know these guys understand it better. They took a punch on the trip and fought back. Last year they took the same kind of punch and didn't quite know what to do."Jeff Goodman of CBS also had some solid notes on the trip. A look at a few of them in more detail.
Who stood out: "Derrick Barden. He was a third-team junior college All-American who was the first person to average 20 points and 10 boards at Midland since Larry Johnson. He's undersized, probably only about 6-foot-4, but he averaged a double-double against the two toughest teams over there. I didn't think he'd be able to go right in and do that against pros."
Biggest concern: "Defense. Valuing defense more. Scoring isn't our problem, but we need to take more pride and show more effort on the defensive side of the ball. We did a better job on the trip, but we've still got to improve in that aspect."
- The only significant loss from last year's team was that of starting power forward Mike Proctor, who averaged 9.5 points and 6.8 boards and was an honorable mention all-league guy. However, look for Barden to slide into Proctor's spot and the Bears shouldn't miss a beat. In fact, it'll likely be an upgrade.I heard similar good things about Barden when he was signed... a JUCO recruiting expert told me he will be a big-time player in the Big Sky. He averaged 20 and 12 last year. In my mind, he is the favorite for Newcomer of the Year in the Big Sky.
- Sophomore point guard Tevin Svihovec tied for the team lead in scoring and Hill was extremely complimentary about his performance on the trip. "He was our best defender on the trip," Hill said. "He's a tough kid and just wants to compete."Svihivoec emerged as the go-to guy for the Bears down the stretch last season, so it is no surprise that he led the charge here. The Bears will be a very good offensive team, but if they are going to compete for a conference championship, they need to get better and a lot tougher defensively. This sounds like a good start. If the Bears will have a successor to Devon Beitzel, it looks like Svihovec is the guy.
- Junior guard Tate Unruh has made strides -- both emotionally and physically. "When we recruited him, he was 5-foot-11 and 145 pounds. Opey Taylor. He looked like he was 12. He's 6-foot-4 now and you can see he's starting to get that much-needed confidence. In the first game on the trip, they really took it to him -- but he responded so well in the next game. He dug in and got back up after a punch."Unruh can be huge for them because he is as pure of a shooter as there is in the Big Sky. He is someone you can't cheat an inch off, because he will bury any look. If he gets that confidence, and more importantly, adds some strength (he has grown but was still very wiry last year), he can average 15 points a game in this conference.
- The X-factor for the team could be 6-foot-5 sophomore forward Tim Huskisson, who averaged 6.5 points as a freshman while starting about half the team's games. "He's the guy who looks like a high-major player when he walks into the gym," Hill said. "He's 6-5 or 6-6 and has long arms. He was effective against Marquette and Iowa State last year, but like your typical freshman, he hit the wall halfway through the season. He needs to play with more confidence."I said all last year that Huskisson may be the most important piece for them to take the next step, because he added something different from every other player on the roster. Last year, UNC had a lot of skill players, but they didn't have any plus athletes other than Huskisson. He was raw last year as expected from a true freshman, but he has a chance to make the leap because he is so gifted.
- Another player who could change the complexion of the team is 6-foot junior Paul Garnica, a big-time scorer coming out of high school in San Antonio. "He's so, so talented," Hill said.Garnica is an interesting player. At times, he will look like an all-conference guy. He is a good shooter, penetrator, and you get the feeling he could be near the top of the league in steals. However, he does things that have to be maddening for the coaching staff. He loses concentration defensively, and offensively he has a bad habit of going for the flashy play rather than the solid play. If he can break those bad habits and keep improving the good habits, he is talented enough to be an all-conference player as well.
There is certainly a lot to like about the Bears, and the more I think about them, the more I think they will be (at least) the third best team in the Big Sky.
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