Jeff Linder would, for obvious reasons, be happy to play Saturday in the Big Sky men’s basketball championship game at CenturyLink Arena in Boise.
But there’s also another sweet reward he has in mind — cookies.
An assistant under Leon Rice for six seasons at Boise State from 2010 to 2016, Linder is in his third season as the head coach at Northern Colorado. This week’s tournament is his first time back since taking over the Bears’ program, and he’s taken a moment to get a little nostalgic.
“I feel like one of our recruits, staying at the Grove, overlooking the city,” Linder said. “I had to take in that view a little bit, think about the six years here, loved everything about it and the growth I was able to experience to give me this chance.
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“I’ve already been to some of my spots, but I’m itching to go to Toni O’s Gourmet Cookies in Eagle (only open Saturdays). We get them shipped every Christmas.”
Winning a title in Boise would be special for Linder, and another step forward for Northern Colorado. He’s led the Bears to a second straight 20-win season, entering the tournament as the No. 2 seed with a 21-10 overall mark, 15-5 in the Big Sky.
The Bears have been to one NCAA Tournament since moving up from Division II to Division I in 2003. They will face Southern Utah in the quarterfinals at 5:30 p.m. Thursday.
Last season, UNC won 26 games and won the CollegeInsider.com Tournament, the first Big Sky team to win a postseason tournament crown. The turnaround has been impressive, especially since Linder took over a 10-win team that was under NCAA investigation for academic mismanagement and impermissible financial benefits under previous coach B.J. Hill.
“There’s 353 jobs in Division I, and about 200 of them, you’re just fighting an uphill battle every day, but I’m from Colorado, I’ve coached in the Big Sky (at Weber State), and I felt it was a job where we could get to the NCAA Tournament,” Linder said. “... We’ve been fortunate to have staff continuity and found guys that fit our program. We’ve only been able to use 11 of our 13 scholarships.”
It has been hard work, but the results are already showing — Linder was named Big Sky coach of the year, senior guard Jordan Davis the player of the year, junior guard Jonah Radebaugh the defensive player of the year and guard Bodie Hume the freshman of the year.
Davis, a 6-foot-2 Las Vegas native, is the lone senior on the team, the only one to play a game on the roster under anyone but Linder. He’s No. 9 in the nation in scoring average at 23.8 points per game, and he knew quickly, despite all the difficulties that may lie ahead, that Linder was the right man to turn the program around.
“In our first meeting, he said I was a guy he wanted to build a culture around,” Davis said. “The first week, we spent almost every spare moment together. When I wasn’t studying for finals or in class, I was in his office ... it was really organic. We wanted to be part of making something great, that connection made it easier, other guys saw it, and it was a great fit from the start.”
With a roster that is among the nation’s youngest, and the full scholarship allotment set to return next season, the Bears should be a force in the Big Sky for the near future. Making it even brighter would be their second Big Sky title.
“Last year was a beautiful thing, most wins in school history, but we didn’t succeed at our biggest goal, so we’re excited to have the chance again to make it happen,” Davis said.