Jack Murphy appears to be putting the right pieces together to re-shape the men’s basketball program at Northern Arizona University after a train wreck of a season that saw just one conference victory and ended with 16 straight losses .
And, more importantly, he’s finding a lot of those pieces in his own backyard. Three of the six players in his first recruiting class in Flagstaff are from Arizona high schools.
The new head coach, who was hired away from an assistant position at Memphis in mid-April, has added some strength under the boards and some serious offensive firepower.
The perimeter scoring help comes from the three local additions: DeWayne Russell from Peoria High School, Bryce Gosar from Sunnyslope High, and Cameron Forte, a transfer who played his high school ball at McClintock High School in Tempe.
Forte left for Texas Tech after his prep career in Tempe, but has returned as a redshirt freshman on the NAU roster. While at McClintock, the 6’6″ forward led the state in his senior year, averaging 36.2 points a game, and contributing 12.7 rebounds. At one point in the season, he led the nation in scoring and went on to finish in sixth place; his 60 points in a single game was just two shy of the state’s big-school record.
The other locals can put points on the board as well. Russell is a 5’10” guard who was named the Arizona Republic Big School Player of the Year as a senior, leading his Peoria High team to a Division II state title while averaging 27 points a game. Gosar averaged 21.6 points at Sunnyslope and was an All-Arizona Division II second-team selection.
Rounding out the group of six are three players who can do the heavy lifting under the boards, led by Len Springs, a 6’10” JUCO transfer from California who was one of the leading shot-blockers in California and will have two years of eligibility to give the NAU program.
Jordyn Martin will bring another strong rebounding presence as a freshman who had interest from a number of D-I colleges, but chose the school where both parents attended. The 6’7″ forward averaged 11 points and nine rebounds as a senior at Palo Verde High in Las Vegas.
Blake Hamilton, a 6’5″ forward from Pasadena, Calif., also averaged 11 boards a game as a senior, but accounted for 16 points of offense each game – and provided the intimidation on defense that comes with four blocks a game.
“They all bring interesting intangibles to our team,” Murphy said in evaluating the incoming group. “They are great scorers and playmakers, and are skilled athletes that will bring a high level of athletic ability.”
The first couple of commitments from high-visibility local prep standouts will also bring something else to the program, Murphy figures. “Since Cameron and DeWayne announced they were coming here, it has really helped our recruiting for 2013 and 2014 in the state.”
Northern Arizona, a Division I FCS school in the Big Sky Conference, competes with a couple of Pac-12 programs for local talent, generally settling for what’s left over after Arizona and Arizona State have their pick.
In-state recruiting by the NAU basketball program has been spotty, at best, in the past. But Murphy has moved the local recruiting up to the top of his list.
“There are a lot of good basketball players here,” Murphy points out. “Schools not only in the Big Sky, but the Big West and West Coast conferences have done a great job recruiting the state of Arizona in the past, and winning off our home-grown players.
“I am hoping to keep those guys at home, and getting these three in the initial class has really helped.”
And he is going to need that help right out of the chute. The Lumberjacks will open the new season with six straight road games before playing their first home game in the Skydome on Dec. 1. And the first of those six games will be against a Pac-12 team, Oregon.
It’s almost as bad on the other end of the schedule, as the Jacks finish up with two road games in Montana.
Hey, nobody said it was going to be easy – even with great local talent.
(Photo: NAU Athletics)