‘New era’ of basketball at NAU gets off to a rocky start

Rome, as the saying goes, wasn’t built in a day.  And college sports programs aren’t rebuilt in a season.

The new head basketball coaches at Northern Arizona University know this.  They just hope their fans are on the same page.

Both the men’s and women’s basketball teams are off to 0-2 starts.  A tough way to begin what has been hyped as a “new era” in Lumberjack basketball.  The programs are trying to rebound from some disappointing seasons and the hire of new coaching talent was hoped to get the process started.

The men’s program hasn’t finished better than fourth place in the Big Sky Conference in the last three years and bottomed out last year when it went 5-24 and closed the season with 16 straight losses after long-time head coach Mike Adras suddenly departed just nine games into the season.

The women’s program has struggled in recent years to get over the .500 mark and concluded last season with a 9-20 record that included just four conference wins.  Head coach Laurie Kelly resigned after the season ended to take a similar position at a Division III school in her native Minnesota.

Jack Murphy took over the men’s program after three seasons as an assistant at the University of Memphis and was on staff at Arizona for eight years, but has no college head-coaching experience.

The men opened with a couple of exhibition wins over Haskell Indian Nations University and Adams State, averaging better than 80 points a game.  But the season opener brought the reality of playing with top Division I competition into focus as the Jacks dropped the season opener to Oregon, 83-73, and lost Monday to the No. 18-ranked UNLV Runnin’ Rebels, 92-54.

They overcame a 12-point deficit in the second half to take a late lead before falling to Oregon, which finished 24-10 last season and advanced to the NIT semi-finals.  Against UNLV, the Jacks couldn’t get any closer than eight points late in the first half, due in large part to cold shooting that resulted in 25 percent accuracy for the game.

Murphy blamed the final margin on having to play some of his players out of position, which they weren’t able to prepare for in practice.  But the Jacks’ defense contributed as well, allowing the Rebels to shoot 50 percent from the floor and enjoy a 21-0 advantage on fast breaks.

And it’s not likely to get any easier.  The first two games were just the beginning of a six-game road trip and Oregon was just one of three Pac-12 teams, including Arizona and Colorado, that NAU will face in the first two months of the schedule.

The women, under the direction of Sue Darling, opened on the road against New Mexico, but then were able to play CSU Bakersfield on their own floor.  However, the results were the same, as New Mexico rallied from an early deficit to win going away, 68-57, and CSU also climbed out of an 11-point hole in the first half to squeeze out a 71-68 victory.

Amy Patton, the senior guard from McClintock High School in Tempe, played her usual role in the offense, leading all scorers in both games.  Her 33 points in the New Mexico game moved her into second place on the NAU list of all-time leading scorers, and then she added another 29 points against CSU.

Coach Darling has an experienced squad to help her begin making the turnaround this season, which includes a senior point guard in Paige Haynes and a senior center in 6’2″ Aubrey Davis, who started her senior campaign with a game-high 11 rebounds in the opener.

The new head coach brings a wealth of experience to help her with her job, including three years spent as head coach of the Air Force program.  She also has deep local roots that include early stops at Salpointe Catholic and Amphitheater high schools in Tucson, Pima Community College, and most recently four years as an assistant on the University of Arizona staff.

It’s still too early to get a handle on how the new coaches are going to fare this season.  But there is one person in particular who has a vested interest in their success.

As the season unfolds, no one is going to be more interested in its outcome than Lisa Campos, the school’s athletic director.  She, too, is new to the campus after her hire at the start of the year, and the hiring of the men’s and women’s basketball coaches were her first major moves.

Like it or not, the success of the basketball and football programs are major factors when evaluating the success of an athletic director at any D-I institution.

So there are at least three people who have a lot riding on the eventual success of basketball at NAU.

(Photo: NAU Athletics)