No. 1 UA out to ruin Christmas for NAU men’s basketball

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                </div>  The Northern Arizona University men’s basketball team is about to get run over by Santa’s reindeer on the way to Christmas.  Just two days before the jolly old-timer makes […]<!-- AddThis Sharing Buttons below -->
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The Northern Arizona University men’s basketball team is about to get run over by Santa’s reindeer on the way to Christmas.  Just two days before the jolly old-timer makes his rounds this year, the Lumberjacks have a game scheduled with the No. 1 team in the country.

They will have had more than a week to prepare for the Dec. 23 game against University of Arizona, but how much can that really help?  This lump of coal in their stockings will still be a lump of coal, even if it comes gift-wrapped.

The Jacks have won just three of their 10 games so far this season and lost last week to a Division I team that was playing in Division II just last year.  Grand Canyon University, which moved up to D-I play this season, took NAU to the wire Saturday before a jump shot by Max Jacobsen with just 18 seconds left to play sealed the 63-61 victory in Flagstaff.

“The crowd brought us the energy we needed,” said NAU junior forward Len Springs after that game.  “It was great to see the fans excited.”

There were 2,434 of those excited fans on hand at the Walkup Skydome to watch the Jacks put an end to a four-game losing skid – and that was about 700 more than their season average.  But NAU travels to Tucson for the next game, where 14,545 screaming supporters showed up for the Cats’ last home game against New Mexico State.  Many students will have left campus for the holiday break, but McKale Center will be rocking nonetheless.

Arizona is undefeated (11-0), ranked No. 1 in the country, and averaging almost 80 points a game.

The two teams met last season, the first year for NAU’s new head coach, Jack Murphy.  But Murphy is very familiar with the Arizona program.  He was an assistant coach there for eight years before taking a similar role at the University of Memphis, and then moving to Flagstaff to take over a program that was coming off a disastrous 5-24 season after the abrupt resignation by his predessor, Mike Adras.

But the NAU job was his first as a head coach, and it’s been a bumpy start.  Last season, the team finished 11-21, tied for sixth place in the Big Sky Conference (8-12), and was routed by Weber State, 84-58, in the conference tournament quarterfinals.  This year, the Jacks were picked by the media in the pre-season polls to finish seventh in the Big Sky, and the coaches’ poll had them finishing ninth.

This year, Murphy is trying to blend his latest additions into the program after a full year of recruiting, putting 10 newcomers together with a roster that includes five returning players, two of whom were starters. Gaellan Bewernick is a sophomore forward who started 30 of 31 games last year, providing six points and six rebounds a game, and Max Jacobsen is a senior forward who started 24 games, averaging nine points and 4.6 rebounds.

A third member of that starting group last year, DeWayne Russell, was set to return this season but abruptly changed his mind, announcing his intent to leave the program just three days before the first game on the regular-season schedule.  Russell was the second-leading scorer from last year, averaging 14.4 points a game as a freshman, and scored in double figures in 25 games.  His loss meant the Jacks would enter this season without their top two scorers from last year, the other being Gabe Rogers (17.9 points/game), who graduated.

Murphy has added five junior-college transfers to the roster this season, to provide some immediate help to an otherwise young team.  But it’s taking awhile to pull it all together.

Last year, NAU was just one of 17 straight victims during a Wildcat winning spree to start the season.  The Cats scored 90 points against them, beating the Jacks by 43 points.

Expect more of the same this year, as the rebuilding process continues.  Bah, Humbug!

(Photo: Arizona Athletics)