Column: Men’s basketball among five teams competing for four tournament spots

 
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COLUMN BY CODY BASHORE —

Having failed to essentially lock up a Big Sky Conference tournament berth with an upset of Weber State University on March 2, the NAU men’s basketball team sits in the mess that is the conference’s bottom half.

With only two games to play for everyone but Northern Colorado, a lot of movement up and down the standings could still happen during the regular season’s final week. The Lumberjacks could win two straight and sit tied for fourth or finish eighth and out of the tournament altogether.

NAU freshman point guard DeWayne Russell on the men's basketball team takes a shot in the game against Idaho State. NAU won the game on Thursday February 28th which will take them into the Big Sky Conference playoffs. (Photo by Jeff Bucher)

NAU freshman point guard DeWayne Russell on the men’s basketball team takes a shot in the game against Idaho State. (Photo by Jeff Bucher)

The situation could obviously have been avoided if NAU simply would have held onto its seven-point lead with 2:27 remaining against Weber State, the conference’s second-place and most talented team, according to senior guard Gabe Rogers. As has been the issue three separate times this season, the Lumberjacks will not make things easy on themselves.

Had they held onto home leads against North Dakota, Eastern Washington and Weber State, the preseason pick to finish last in the Big Sky would be sitting third, locked into the postseason.

However, that’s not the case, and NAU will travel to Montana for games at Montana State University and the University of Montana. One win should put them into the postseason. Dropping both would require some help from other schools to get them in.

The March 7 matchup with the Montana State Bobcats obviously provides the best shot at a win. NAU opened its conference season with an 87–80 win against Montana State in front of a student-less crowd on Dec. 17. With the Bobcats having dropped their past four home games and seven of nine overall, it seems the Lumberjacks are in position to win and avoid the need of help from other schools.

In that Dec. 17 game, Rogers shot a mere 4-of-14 overall and 1-of-6 from outside to score 11 points. Obviously, his run of 14 straight games in double digit scoring and 10 of those games being over 20 has him looking to make a much more positive impact this time around.

If the win fails to come against the Bobcats, the Montana Grizzlies host the Lumberjacks on the season’s final day. The current conference leader has three games in six days to end the season, with NAU as the final test.

NAU tied Montana with 5:49 remaining back on Dec. 19 before letting the game slip away to lose 62–56. Montana’s stars, Will Cherry and Mathias Ward, both played in the game in Flagstaff, scoring 12 points apiece. Both Cherry and Ward will missed the March 4 game against Southern Utah and could miss the game against NAU, providing a bit of relief.

The Lumberjacks have actually been a reasonably strong road team this year, sitting with the fourth most road wins overall in the conference behind the current top three. NAU has actually managed three conference road wins, which while it sounds poor, does place them fifth in the conference.

Potentially, the saving grace for NAU is just how poor its main rival for a tournament spot, Sacramento State, is on the road. Currently 1–7 on the road, Sacramento State needs to finish with a better record than NAU to get in. The Lumberjacks beat the Hornets twice and hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over them. Both teams face the Montana schools this week, so with the competition equal, NAU simply needs to keep up with Sacramento State to get in.

Despite a season filled with a few pretty big let downs, the Lumberjacks still control their own destiny when it comes to a playoff spot. With a first-year coach, a lack of depth on the roster and coming off one of the worst seasons in program history, the team’s current position has to be looked at as a positive sign of things to come in the future.

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