Let's continue our journey through the first round of the Big Sky tournament with a look at the three seed Northern Arizona Lumberjacks taking on the six seed Northern Colorado Bears.
First meeting in Greeley - Northern Colorado won 87-72
Second meeting in Flagstaff - Northern Colorado won 74-59
Why Northern Arizona Can Win:
Nobody is playing better than NAU coming into the conference tournament, as they come in as winners of four straight. Guys seem to have found their roles, and the freshman are playing better and better. Athletically, they can match up with the Bears. Defensively, a key for NAU will be on the glass. UNC is very good at getting second chances, but NAU was the best defensive rebounding team in the conference during Big Sky play, so they should be able to limit those second opportunities which are so important for the Bears.
The other thing in NAU's favor is that UNC has been playing miserably on defense for the past month or so. During Big Sky play, the Bears are allowing 1.13 PPP (2nd last in Big Sky), and opponents are just killing them inside the arc, shooting 54.2%. There will be plenty of opportunities for the Jacks to get easy baskets, and look for them to attack right at the heart of the Bears defense. UNC has great rebounders and athletes in the frontcourt, but no defensive imposers, and you can attack them down low.
Why Northern Colorado Can Win:
For one thing, they know they can beat NAU, since they have done it twice, winning by 15 points both times. By the seeds, UNC is the underdog, but this is actually a pretty good matchup for them. One thing NAU struggles with defensively is giving up too many open three-point looks (opponents shoot 40.2% from downtown against the Jacks, 4th worst in the nation), and the Bears have plenty of shooters to be able to take advantage of that. UNC had the best offense in the Big Sky, and they have so many different guys that can hurt you, that it will be a challenge for NAU.
When the teams met in Greeley, the Bears were able to use pressure before halfcourt to force NAU into turnovers, and to get them out of their offensive rhythm. I am sure they will be bringing more of that pressure, because NAU struggles at times to take care of the basketball. For a UNC team that has struggled defensively, that could be a way for them to stay in the game.
The thing to realize about the Big Sky tournament is that there are no upsets, especially in the first round. All of these teams are very even, and it all comes down to matchups. In this game, I think Northern Colorado's strengths match up better with Northern Arizona's weaknesses better than the other way around. We should be in for an entertaining, efficient offensive games. Even though NAU is undoubtedly the hotter team right now, I like the seniors of Northern Colorado to put together a good tournament game and pull out the win. Northern Colorado 75, Northern Arizona 71.
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