Northern Colorado Arizona Basketball

Northern Colorado head coach Jeff Linder gives instruction in a game against Arizona on Nov. 21, 2016.

BOISE — Boise State men’s basketball coach Leon Rice had promised Jeff Linder what he called ‘concierge-level service’ while Linder was in town with Northern Colorado for the Big Sky Tournament this week.

That would have included access to Taco Bell Arena for practices, if not for Jimmy Buffett.

While Parrotheads took over Boise State’s home gym for a Buffett concert Wednesday night, the Bears had to find a different venue to practice at. Fortunately they have a coach who knows the area very well.

Linder is back in town this week for the first time since leaving Rice’s staff to take the Northern Colorado head coaching job three years ago. He had spent the previous six years at Boise State, including the final three as Associate Head Coach.

“I’ve always viewed Boise as a special place in my heart and in my family’s heart,” Linder said. “We really enjoyed our six years here, living in Boise, working with Coach Rice. There’s not a better head coach to work for in terms of understanding what really matters.”

The Bears (21-10) open the Big Sky Tournament at 5:30 p.m. today as the No. 2 seed. They will face Southern Utah in the quarterfinals and look to end the week as Big Sky champions, which would earn them a spot in next week’s NCAA Tournament.

The Bears won the Big Sky Tournament in 2011, but that title was vacated shortly after Linder took the job in 2017, as the NCAA sanctioned Northern Colorado for providing players impermissible academic and financial aid benefits from 2010-14. The NCAA placed the Bears on probation for three years, which included a postseason ban for the 2016-17 season and a loss of scholarships for three years.

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“We never use the sanctions or our situation to define us or allow that to be an excuse,” said Linder, who had just 11 scholarship players this season, the Bears’ final year under sanctions. “That’s the biggest thing. I’ve got a great staff who since day one has really bought in and make this work.”

Linder wasted no time turning the Bears back into a winning program. Last season, his second year with Northern Colorado, the Bears posted a 26-12 record and won the College Insider Tournament title. It was the first postseason tournament championship of any kind for a Big Sky program. This season, he had the Bears in line for a Big Sky regular season title until a 89-78 loss to Northern Arizona on Saturday in the regular-season finale. Northern Colorado still finished with a school-record 15 wins in conference play.

“I’m not surprised, I love Linder, he’s a great coach,” said Rice. “He was an intricate part of what we built here together. We had a lot of great days together, we won a Mountain West championship together. So we have a lot of fun memories. We talk and bounce a lot of ideas off each other still.”

The turnaround earned Linder Big Sky Coach of the Year honors, as well as other recognition for the Bears by the conference.

Senior Jordan Davis, who ranks ninth in the nation with 23.8 points per game, was named the conference Player of the Year and a unanimous first-team All-Big Sky selection. Junior Jonah Radebaugh was named the Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year, while Bodie Hume was the Freshman of the Year.

But Linder and the Bears aren’t going to be satisfied with just the personal accolades. They came to Boise on a mission: Get three wins and go dancing in the NCAA Tournament.

“In the Big Sky, as good as our league is, it’s always up for grabs every year,” said Linder. “I felt like (Northern Colorado) was a place that you can come in, you can win 20-plus games, even though you have a challenging nonconference schedule. But ultimately what you’re trying to do in this business is make the NCAA Tournament. I feel like in the Big Sky and at Northern Colorado, we have a good a chance as anyone else in the league to make the tournament.”

John Wustrow is the assistant sports editor of the Idaho Press. He is a Michigan native and a graduate of Indiana University.

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