There was a multitude of "big wins" for Northern Colorado Basketball last season during the Bears' historic run to their first Big Sky Conference championship and first NCAA Tournament appearance.
There might not have been a bigger victory for the program, though, than its 82-80 road win at New Mexico State in mid-February.
In the big picture, that particular game and subsequent result meant little -- coach B.J. Hill's program still needed to take care of business the rest of the way in order to earn an invite to the Big Dance -- but the Bears' mood in the locker room after their Aggie takedown was dripping with confidence.
It was a benchmark victory for a group of veteran players that was nearing the finale of truly memorable Northern Colorado careers.
Now many of the key figures from that nail-biting win are gone -- replaced in the Bears' locker room with a group that's as young, exciting and promising as it is inexperienced.
But New Mexico State is back this season on Northern Colorado's schedule, which was officially released today. And the Aggies are the very first team on the Bears' docket (Saturday, Nov. 12), right after they open their Big Sky-title defense with a home exhibition game against Chadron State (Tuesday, Nov. 1).
Hill will have little time this year to ease his squad into the rigors of NCAA Division I basketball.
But that's all by design, of course.
"For the first game of the year, it's going to be a huge challenge, playing a program like New Mexico State," Hill said Wednesday. "But I know the kind of guys we have and the guys we've brought in, and I know they are ready for it.
"What sticks out about New Mexico State is when you see them walk on the floor. They look like a dang NBA team. So, by that point, if any of our guys don't have the respect factor for where we've taken this program to this point, their eyes are going to open to it right away. If they haven't figured it out by that point about what kind of program this is, their mindset's going to change real quick."
If it doesn't, a quick trip north to regional-rival Wyoming (Tuesday, Nov. 15) and a weeklong road trip to 2010 NCAA Tournament-darling Northern Iowa (Sunday, Nov. 20), Iowa State (Tuesday, Nov. 22) and South Padre Island, Texas, for the 2011 South Padre Island Invitational will probably finish off the indoctrination.
The games against the Panthers and the Cyclones will offer Hill a chance to return to his old stomping grounds. He hails from Cedar Falls, Iowa -- Northern Iowa's home.
"We've played in those (on-campus then neutral-site) tournaments every year since I've been here, except maybe for one," Hill said. "So when the opportunity came up, and when we were researching it and found that those were the teams in it, that was definitely the tournament I wanted to play in.
"The opportunity to get home and play in front of my family for two games is going to be great. I'm really looking forward to it. Those are two head coaches I really respect, and I've got friends on both of those staffs. It's just going to be fun for a lot of different reasons."
A five-of-six span away from Greeley to start the season is probably less than ideal, but it figures to have Hill's squad a bonded bunch before its opens a friendlier stretch of eight of 10 at home between the end of November and the middle of January, including always anticipated contests at home against Denver (Wednesday, Dec. 14) and Colorado State (Thursday, Dec. 22).
Sandwiched between those rivalry games will be a road contest at Marquette of the Big East (Saturday, Dec. 17).
"To get DU and Colorado State here will be great for our fans," Hill said. "They, obviously, enjoy it, and our players enjoy playing in front of crowds like that. So it's a win-win. Hopefully we can play well in and show that this program is ready to continue to compete at the level we've established the last few seasons."
The Bears will play four of their first five Big Sky games this season at Butler-Hancock before traveling for four straight to Montana (Thursday, Jan. 19) and Montana State (Saturday, Jan. 21) and then Idaho State (Thursday, Jan. 26) and Northern Arizona (Monday, Jan. 30).
Then, it's back home for five of six in Greeley, including Montana's first trip to Butler-Hancock (Thursday, Feb. 9) since succumbing to the Bears and a raucous crowd in last year's nationally televised Big Sky Conference Championship game.
"Having 14 home games and two neutral-site games this year was key in our planning with how young we are," Hill said. "We need to take advantage of every chance we can of playing in front of the home crowd or on neutral sites, to give these young guys as much confidence as possible while they learn what it's all about and learn our system."
Of Northern Colorado's final two home games, one will be a guaranteed home game in the ESPN BracketBuster series (Saturday, Feb. 18) and a home-schedule finale against perennial Big Sky-power Weber State (Saturday, Feb. 25).
"The more of those (ESPN) events you can play in, it gives your team more notoriety," Hill said. "It just helps carry on the positive press for this university and community and gives a sense of legitimacy to our program and our university on the Division I basketball scene."
There's a lot to like about the schedule Hill has authored for his Bears in the upcoming season, but, as Hill is quick to point out, if you get too involved in the "who are we playing where?" scenarios you'll end up treading water instead of making a splash.
"I'm happy about (the big home portions) because I think it will help our program to a certain point," he said, sitting in front of pictures and posters commemorating last year's remarkable run. "But, regardless of where we play or who we play, we've just got to go out and keep doing the things that we've done here that have led us to success."
2011-12 Northern Colorado Basketball schedule | 2011-12 season-ticket information