Column: Lumberjacks take steps to rebuild program in Murphy’s first season

 
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COLUMN BY CODY BASHORE — 

When NAU hired head coach Jack Murphy 11 months ago, the program looked as bleak as possible. Coming off a 5–24 season, ending on a 16-game losing streak and seeing a pair of its top freshmen recruits leave after one season failed to instill much confidence going forward.

Weber State rolls Northern Arizona

FILE PHOTO: DeWayne Russell (12) of Northern Arizona drives up the court past Weber State’s Davion Berry (15) Thursday, March 14, 2013, in the Dahlberg Arena. Weber State beat Northern Arizona 81-58. (Photo courtesy of Hunter D’Antuono/ The Montana Kaimin)

Fast forward to present day and the Lumberjacks sit in a much more positive position. An 11–21 record with eight conference wins, an appearance in the Big Sky Conference (BSC) tournament and a promising freshman guard who will be joined by a 7-player recruiting class next season.

A blowout loss to Weber State University may not have been the ideal finish for the season in the first round of the BSC tournament, but it did not change what can be considered a huge step forward.

What could have been:

Not to sound greedy, but the Lumberjacks’ season could have been even better. Looking back on the schedule, NAU finished 1–4 in overtime games. Another three games in conference finished within two points in regulation, with NAU finishing 2–1 in those. With just a bit more luck or the ability to hold on to some big leads, the Lumberjacks could have moved even higher up the final conference standings. However, Murphy and his staff should be encouraged by the Lumberjacks’ ability to stay competitive in most of their Big Sky games. Southern Utah is the only Big Sky team NAU failed to beat or at least hold a second half lead against.

Russell’s run:

Freshman guard DeWayne Russell capped off his first season at NAU with a strong finish against Weber State despite the score in the second half. While he started off the season on a hot streak to draw attention from around the conference, Russell cooled off a bit late and failed to earn any All-Big Sky honors. It may be early, but his 462 points puts him on pace to break Cameron Jones’ school record of 1,643 if the pace keeps up. With senior guard Gabe Rogers graduating, Russell’s role as a scorer should only increase next season.

Russell already finished his freshman season with the third most minutes played in a single season in school history, while senior Gabe Rogers broke the record in the same category. Russell also made his mark from the free-throw line, hitting 123 shots for sixth in single season school history. His 168 free-throws attempts also ranked him at seventh most in a single season. The void left by Rogers will be filled at least in part by Russell himself, so his totals should increase going forward.

Jacobsen’s career year:

Granted his first season at NAU didn’t produce much in 17 games, junior forward Max Jacobsen broke out this season to give the Lumberjacks an unexpected threat inside. His nine points and 4.6 rebounds average came in just 22 minutes per game. Another step up in play for Jacobsen in his senior year will greatly help NAU take another jump forward in the Big Sky next season. His minutes should also increase a bit next season, at least until some of the incoming front-court recruits prove to be worthy of cutting into them. Having been the tallest active player on the roster this season, Jacobsen played somewhat out of position at times. The addition of two bigs from the recruiting class and junior forward Len Springs returning from a redshirt season should help Jacobsen face off against defenders near his own size.

Seven newcomers:

Speaking of the two new big men for NAU, the roster will look quite a bit different next season. Five seniors graduate from a roster of 12, with seven recruits headed to Flagstaff. A quick breakdown of the roster shows a team of two seniors, four juniors, three sophomores and five freshman. Two of the juniors, forward Zach Reynolds and guard Quinton Upshur, will be transfers from junior colleges, though Upshur has yet to be officially announced as a signee.

Positionally, the roster will split evenly with seven forwards (6’6” or taller) and seven guards (6’5” or shorter). The balance is a welcome sight for the Lumberjacks, who have been a bit guard heavy as of late, but how quickly this team gels together next season will be the focus. Only four players who averaged more than 10 minutes a game return to the team, so new faces will fill the court for the Lumberjacks next season.

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