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In second season at UNC, Daylen Kountz has emerged as Big Sky player of the year contender

As Northern Colorado got its summer workouts underway last year, Steve Smiley quickly had a realization.

Daylen Kountz, coming off a strong debut season with the Bears and now a senior, not only looked poised to be one of the top players for UNC again, but within the entire Big Sky Conference, as well.

“‘Does anyone else realize that if he keeps playing like this, he might be the player of the year in the whole league?,’” the Bears head basketball coach recalled telling his assistants.

“My entire staff is like, ‘He is playing just unbelievably.’ We could notice a jump right away.”

After Kountz dropped a career-high 33 points against then-No. 8 Arizona in mid-December, fans of UNC and college basketball alike saw exactly what Smiley was talking about. The Bears dropped the game, 101-76, but Kountz shot 12 of 19 (63%) from the floor, hitting four of his five attempted 3-pointers.

The 6-foot-4, 190-pound guard transferred from CU to UNC in the spring of 2020, and was solid for the Bears in his first season, averaging 14.1 points per game on 43% shooting from the floor.

This season, Kountz has gone from dependable to dominant.

Heading into Monday night’s visit to Portland State (8:30 p.m. MST), Kountz’s 19.7 points-per-game average leads the Big Sky. He’s also third in the league in shooting percentage (50.8%), fifth in free throw percentage (83.5%) and tied for second in minutes per game (33.4).

The road that led Kountz to the forefront of the conference player of the year conversation was not without bumps or detours.

The former Denver East star had plenty of options coming out of high school, eventually signing with the Buffaloes as part of their Class of 2018. After a promising true freshman campaign, Kountz struggled coming off the bench in 2019-20, and ultimately decided to transfer at the end of the season.

“When I decided to go into the portal, my whole main thing was to go somewhere where I could get on the floor — wherever it may be,” Kountz said.

“I didn’t know where it was at the time, but I just feel like (UNC) is the best place for me to be on the floor and showcase my talents and what I can do.”

A pair of familiar faces helped Kountz get settled with the Bears — former Colorado Hawks AAU teammates Bodie Hume (Sterling) and since-departed Sam Masten (Rock Canyon).

The comfort with the two guards translated immediately on the court, with Kountz finishing the 2020-21 season second on the Bears in points (311), points per game and field goals (111).

Still, last year’s pandemic-affected season kept Smiley from being able to fully tailor the UNC offense to fit Kountz’s talents. With UNC past the midway point of this season, that’s far from the case now, as much of the Bears’ attack flows through Kountz.

“I’m happy for Daylen,” CU head coach Tad Boyle said. “We wouldn’t have recruited him here if we didn’t think he was talented, Pac-12 level talent, which he is.

“He’s at a place where he’s more featured and is putting up numbers. I’m happy for his success. Daylen’s a good player, there’s no doubt.”

Smiley in particular has been pleased with Kountz’s improved assist-to-turnover ratio, which is up from 0.69 last year to 1.24 so far this season.

“His efficiency was OK last year, it was not very good the year before at CU and now it’s through the roof — it is elite,” Smiley said. “He has learned how to play off of two feet. He’s learned to play off the pivot, and if it’s not there, how to pivot around and score or find a teammate.

“I think all that little detail stuff that we stress to him — he’s been very receptive to that.”

Kountz, a sociology major at UNC, wants to continue his basketball career beyond college. If he’s able to continue playing the way he has so far this season, that dream looks increasingly possible.

“I believe he’s going to be a pro, not just because he’s talented, but by watching his approach the last two years,” Smiley said. “He’s continually checking boxes and proving people wrong.

“… To what level? Time will tell, but he’s certainly moving up and his trajectory is going in the right direction.”