One of Steve Smiley’s goals for the University of Northern Colorado men’s basketball program since moving to Greeley in 2017 has been to keep local players in state. He’s been relatively successful at it, too. Five players on the roster hail from Colorado, but two in particular stand out.
Senior guards Bodie Hume and Matt Johnson call the Rocky Mountain state home and have been at UNC since their rookie seasons — something special in the era of easy transfers.
Transferring isn’t bad. The current roster features a handful of guys who positively impact the program. It’s just special to find a program where they can find athletic and personal success.
“I think the biggest thing for me is, don’t buy into all the hype and don’t buy into all the fallacies,” Hume said. “Just stick to a program that you know you can trust and that you know you’re going to get to play at.”
That looked a little bit different for the two kids from Colorado.
Hume came out of Sterling High School, a highly anticipated two-sport athlete, with a Colorado 3A Player of the Year award and state title on his resume. He started his UNC career as the Big Sky Freshman of the Year, averaging 10.8 points and 4.3 rebounds per game in his first season.
Since then, Hume has continued to receive accolades and grown into a team leader, while growing athletically and physically. The veteran fits into the Bears’ system well, which focuses on aggressive defense and 3-point shooting. He can do both, giving UNC the option of a strong five-guard lineup.
Mike Holloway, Hume’s high school coach and a UNC alumnus, said Hume has always worked hard and been a good person.
“He was kind of a late bloomer. He was always good, but he really just kept working and blew up late in his high school career,” Holloway said. “He’s a well-rounded kid. He’s a great student, as well, and just a nice young man. He’s always willing to help out and was a great part of the Sterling community. I know all the people on our account are awfully proud of him.”
Johnson’s success has come a bit slower, and he really had to trust things would work out. Unlike Hume, he wasn’t someone expected to play immediately.
That wasn’t abnormal for him, though. Shawn Palmer, boy’s basketball coach at Rangeview High School, said Johnson’s prep career was similar. He had talent and possessed wonderful characteristics, but he was smaller and less experienced than some of the other guys on the team. It wasn’t until his senior year that Johnson was able to show what he could do, Palmer said.
That meant the now-fifth year senior received very little college recruitment with interest coming from UNC coach Steve Smiley, then an assistant, and Houston Reed, coach at Chadron State College. Reed now serves on Smiley’s staff.
Johnson decided to join the Northern Colorado program as a walk-on in 2017.
“At that point, Matt was a senior. He was probably about 6-foot and 130 pounds,” Palmer said. “He was still a little guy but obviously had the basketball talent, the skill and he was such a good leader for us as well that in my mind it was a steal for UNC just to have somebody (like him) in their program.”
The Denver native spent much of his first two seasons as a practice squad and bench player.
Palmer said Johnson likely could have gone to a smaller program but stayed patient, because of his love for UNC.
He earned his first start during the Bears’ 2019 season opener against Texas and has been in the starting five since then. In the early months of 2021, Johnson took his game to another level. He is even more reliable and comes in clutch during late-game situations.
“His nickname is Matty Ice for a reason,” fellow senior Daylen Kountz said last week.
TUCSON, ARIZONA – DECEMBER 15: Center Christian Koloko #35 and forward Azuolas Tubelis #10 of the Arizona Wildcats try to block guard Matt Johnson II #2 of the Northern Colorado Bears during the first half at McKale Center on December 15, 2021 in Tucson, Arizona. (Photo by Rebecca Noble/Getty Images)
GREELEY, CO – DECEMBER 04:Northern Colorado guard Matt Johnson II (2) shouts to his teammates during the second half of the Northern Colorado Bears men’s basketball game against the Montana Grizzlies in Bank of Colorado Arena at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley Dec. 4, 2021. The Bears defeated the Grizzlies 78-75. (Alex McIntyre/Staff Photographer)
GREELEY, CO – DECEMBER 04:Northern Colorado guard Bodie Hume (13) dunks during the first half of the Northern Colorado Bears men’s basketball game against the Montana Grizzlies in Bank of Colorado Arena at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley Dec. 4, 2021. The Grizzlies lead the Bears 44-36 at halftime. (Alex McIntyre/Staff Photographer)
GREELEY, CO – JANUARY 23:The Northern Colorado Bears huddle during a timeout during the second half of the Northern Colorado Bears mens basketball game against the Eastern Washington Eagles in Bank of Colorado Arena at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley Jan. 23, 2021. The Bears fell to the Eagles 82-76. (Alex McIntyre/Staff Photographer)
‘Good things happen when you work hard’
When Smiley earned the job of head coach after Jeff Linder left for Wyoming in March 2020, the longtime assistant invited the players to stay with the program. He understood, however, if any wanted to leave.
That was an easy decision for Hume and Johnson.
Smiley recruited both when they were in high school and has provided the utmost support while pushing them to improve. The family atmosphere — one where it’s not just talk — and high expectations they’d grown accustomed to would remain. They felt a sense of loyalty to that.
“It was just important for me to just give back (to him) what he was able to give me when I was just a little scrawny kid from Rangeview,” Johnson said.
This year, Northern Colorado has competed with some of the toughest teams in the Big Sky and in the country. The Bears mounted a decent comeback attempt at Texas and stayed toe-to-toe with Colorado State and Arizona until the final minutes of each game. All three opponents are in the NCAA Top 25.
UNC beat Montana and Montana State at the beginning of the month, too — teams that were picked to finish near the top of the conference.
Last season, despite everything with COVID-19, Smiley and Co. finished at .500. They stayed and gave him a chance, and it looks like things could be paying off.
The two also opted to stay because of their families. Both are within a two-hour drive from home. This meant loved ones could come to games — Hume estimates six to 15 people come every game — or they could take their own visits. Johnson helped Palmer with a basketball camp over the summer.
That’s a privilege.
The program has given the two a place to mature, physically, mentally and emotionally, beyond the game itself. They know how to manage their time, how to take care of their bodies for athletic efficiency and are simply more responsible.
“That’s just helped me become more of a man, honestly,” Johnson said. “I think it’s been a great experience for me.”
They’ve also found a community. Being at UNC for their whole careers has given them relationships outside of the athletic department. It’s nice to have people say their names, even if they’d never met, and congratulate them on a good game or simply say hello.
Hume called it an “unbelievable thing” to be part of.
Holloway and Palmer see their former players going to do great things. Hopefully, UNC will finally win the coveted Big Sky title and earn a bid to the NCAA Tournament. Then maybe they can continue their basketball careers after college, following in the footsteps of Jordan Davis, Kai Edwards and Jonah Radebaugh. Who knows?
Until then, until they take their UNC Bears jerseys off for the last time, they have fans and loved ones who couldn’t be prouder.
“He’s just a good kid,” Holloway said. “I mean, usually good things happen when you work hard. It tends to pay off.”
This content was originally published here.