With 35 seconds left in the University of Northern Colorado game against Idaho State on Monday, Daylen Kountz and Matt Johnson checked out for the last time in Greeley. They were met with a standing ovation from fans, hugs from the entire coaching staff and special handshakes from their teammates.
For both players, that final moment in the Bank of Colorado Arena will be something they cherish for the rest of their lives. For Kountz, though, it’s got a different meaning.
Hard to see, but Matt Johnson and Daylen Kountz checked out for the last time pic.twitter.com/X4BZ3zXNy1
— Jadyn Adams (@jwatsonfisher) February 28, 2023
Every Division I basketball program in the state, including UNC, recruited Daylen in high school. He didn’t choose UNC and opted to sign with the Colorado Buffaloes.
It seemed like a done deal when he signed his letter of intent in 2017, but his starting point isn’t where the in-state player finished.
Almost five years after graduating from Denver East, Daylen stood with his family – a framed Bears’ jersey on the court – for Northern Colorado’s senior night. He wasn’t anywhere near Boulder and part of program basketball fans probably didn’t expect him to end up at.
“It’s a blessing for us. We’ve had it a lot easier than a lot of other parents have,” his father, Daryl Kountz said. “We just kind of stand behind him, he does the work and we support. It’s a great show.”
‘The best situation’
The fifth year’s basketball career has been, according to his dad, the definition of “dreams do come true.”
Daylen signed with CU and attended for two seasons under former Bear coach Tad Boyle, before deciding to pursue other opportunities. There are no hard feelings against the Buffs, by the way. Boyle hugged his former player and said, “I’m proud of you,” after the teams played in December.
“It was just time to move on,” Daryl said. “Definitely nothing against what they did. He just wanted more of a role.”
For the Kountz family, Daryl said his son’s decision to join the UNC program was a “no brainer.”
Daylen played club basketball with former Bears Sam Masten and Bodie Hume. He already knew Johnson and a few other players, so he already had friends. Plus, he had a great relationship with Smiley.
The younger Kountz has never regretted his choice. Even with some of the struggles and growing pains he and the team has experienced, it was worth it.
“I feel like, for the long run, it was just a better position for me and the best situation for me,” Daylen said after the CU game.
‘He took a leap of faith’
Most fans probably thought of Daylen’s scoring when UNC honored him on Monday. It’s a valid association.
He finished with a record-breaking 2021-22 season, leading the Big Sky in scoring (21.24 points per game) and scored 786 points, ranking him No. 2 in the league for a single season behind Northern Colorado great Jordan Davis.
Daylen earned unanimous All-Big Sky First Team honors and All-Region recognition from the National Basketball Coaches and National Basketball Writers associations, as well.
Then, he led the team to the Big Sky Championship game – including a 36-point performance against Portland State in the semifinals – and the College Basketball Invitational semis.
Plus, he ranks No. 1 in UNC’s Division I history for scoring average (18 ppg), No. 2 for career scoring (1,604 points) and No. 2 in field goals made (572).
Additionally, Daylen ranks No. 4 all-time in scoring. He recently passed all-time greats Hume, Will Figures and Devon Beitzel. He likely won’t pass Davis in career points, but if Daylen’s scoring holds through the rest of the season, he will pass Davis in that statistic.
That said, the CU transfer’s steady improvement in other areas – especially this season – is just as worthy of praise.
His confidence, teamwork and defensive efforts improved every year at UNC.
“He had supposed bigger schools and conferences that wanted him (when he transferred), but he took a leap of faith,” Smiley said. “He was able to allow us to give him some real truth telling of, ‘This is cool you’re coming from the Pac-12, but you’ve gotta get better.’ He wanted to hear that. Sometimes guys drop in perceived level, and think they know it all or they’re better than the level. That’s never been Daylen. From day one, he was here ready to learn. That’s why things have gotten better and better.”
For example, Daylen took a big 3-pointer in the team’s game against South Dakota last season. That shot helped the Bears secure the win. Smiley said at the time he didn’t think his guard would’ve even attempted the shot in the 2020-21 season.
This year, his effort on defense – especially when it comes to stuff that doesn’t show up on the stat sheet – improved significantly. Part of that came out of a desire to get better, especially if he’s going to try and play professionally. The other part of it was out of necessity.
Daylen needed to step into an altered role with the departures of Hume, Kur Jongkuch and Dru Kuxhausen, all of whom were specialists in their positions. He needed to adjust his game.
Additionally, the grad student struggled with scoring early in the season. The team got him good looks, but they didn’t fall. He focused on finding other ways to help the program instead of getting down on himself.
UNC uses advanced analytics to evaluate its performances, including charting every rebound – or lack thereof – and rebound attempt and stops. Daylen had seven rebounds against ISU and at home versus Portland State. In the 30-point thrashing of Weber State, he picked up six.
Plus, he remained committed to guarding opposing players.
“I grabbed him right after the game and said, ‘I don’t care if you miss 50 shots in a row. As long as you’re gonna play like that, play hard and compete, we’re gonna be just fine,’” Smiley said after the PSU road win, where Daylen picked up another six boards. “I just told him I’m really proud of him.”
His family is especially proud of the improvement and the character he showed through it all.
“That kind of just shows he’s willing to learn and willing to do what’s asked, to do whatever (the team) needs,” Daryl said. “It’s good to see him show he can do other things on the court.
‘It feels like I’ve been here my whole career’
UNC isn’t done with its season just yet. It has a chance to make a run in the Big Sky Tournament. It’ll be a tough run, and maybe unlikely, but there’s still time to extend this season.
That said, Daylen already solidified his legacy at the University of Northern Colorado and made his loved ones proud.
He helped elevate the athletic standard, developed relationships within the community, and led with positivity and open communication.
Plus, Smiley lauded his commitment to UNC after his NBA Draft evaluation process.
Daylen received feedback from pro scouts last offseason and opted to return to Greeley for his final year, despite having other options.
“After his season last year, he probably could have hopped in the old open market and made at least $100,000, maybe $200,000, in NIL money, but he stayed loyal,” Smiley said, also noting Johnson’s six-year career.
“They’re really good human beings. Those are the type of people I want to be around at the end of the day. That’s probably the biggest thing: it’s fun to coach kids like that and they’ve made our job really fun.”
As the team’s season presumably winds down in the next week or two, Daryl wants his son to truly enjoy every moment.
He’s in a position millions of kids only hope to be in: playing the sport he loves, earning a degree debt free, and receiving lasting memories and friendships. Be proud of that.
“It’s only been three years, but it feels like I’ve been here my whole career,” Daylen said after the senior day win. “It means a lot; all of the support we’ve had since I’ve been here. There’s been a lot of support, a lot of love. I appreciate everybody for accepting me and being behind me, being behind us.”
No. 8 UNC plays No. 9 Portland State in the first round of the Big Sky Tournament at 8 p.m. Saturday in Boise, Idaho. The game is available on ESPN+.
Facts about the Bears’ seniors and grad students
- Daylen Kountz was named USA Today’s Colorado Player of the Year and a three-star prospect coming out of high school.
- Kountz scored 295 points at CU.
- Kountz ranks No. 2 in UNC Division I history for career scoring (1,604 points) and No. 4 all time.
- Matt Johnson joined the program as a walk-on and scout team member, before earning a scholarship and starting spot.
- Johnson ranks No. 5 in UNC DI history for career scoring (1,395 points) and No. 8 all time.
- Johnson ranks No. 2 in UNC DI history for 3-pointers made (243) and No. 3 all time.
- Dalton Knecht joined the Bears program last season after two seasons in junior college.
- Knecht leads the Big Sky in total points (602) and points per game (20.1).
- At the time of publication, Knecht ranks No. 6 in DI history for single-season scoring. Depending on UNC’s success in the Big Sky Tournament, he could surpass Jordan Davis (620 points, 2017-18) and Devon Beitzel (687, 2010-11)
- Due to COVID, Knecht has the option to return for a fifth year in 2023-24.
- Riley Abercrombie joined the Bears team as a graduate transfer after completing his bachelor’s degree at Rice.
- At the time of publication, Abercrombie is tied at No. 4 for the Bears’ single-season 3-point shooting percentage (.428).
- At the time of publication, Abercrombie is third on the team for blocks (10).