NAU basketball’s men have 6 games to prove they’re for real

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                </div>  On the surface, things look pretty good for the Northern Arizona University men’s basketball team.  The Lumberjacks look to be over-achieving in just the second year under their new […]<!-- AddThis Sharing Buttons below -->
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On the surface, things look pretty good for the Northern Arizona University men’s basketball team.  The Lumberjacks look to be over-achieving in just the second year under their new head coach, Jack Murphy.

Picked to finish ninth in the Big Sky Conference coaches’ pre-season poll, the Jacks are sitting in third place in the conference (8-6), tied with North Dakota for that honor.  And they had back-to-back wins before a loss in their last game when they droped a road game Saturday to Eastern Washington.

But if you look a little closer, you see that Eastern Washington, a .500 team, won by 19 points.

And the two wins before that game came against the bottom two teams in the conference, Portland State and Southern Utah.  They beat Southern Utah at home by seven points and squeezed out a two-point victory at Portland State.

That third place in the standings is also somewhat misleading.  NAU actually has a .440 winning percentage overall, while the team it’s tied with has a .458 percentage.  In fact, there are just two teams in the 11-team Division I conference that have worse winning percentages.

And now Murphy and his Lumberjack squad are standing on the edge, looking down into a dark abyss as they contemplate the road ahead to season’s end.  They have six games left in the regular season and all except one, next week against Idaho State, are against teams in the top half of the conference standings – including No. 1 Weber State and No. 2 Northern Colorado.

NAU is about to embark on a 2 1/2 week journey that will define their success – or lack thereof – this season.  If they can step up and make a statement, it will give Murphy some momentum going into his third season.  And make the coaching staff’s recruiting efforts that much easier as Murphy tries to resurrect a program that finished 5-24 for the 2011-12 season, ending with a 16-game losing skid, after his predecessor abruptly resigned shortly after the season began.

Murphy, who was hired away from the University of Memphis after three seasons as an assistant under Josh Pastner, enjoyed early recruiting success in Flagstaff and had put together an impressive group after being hired in April of 2012. Prior to that he spent eight years with the University of Arizona basketball program, learning his craft from one of the best head coaches in the game, Lute Olson.  He also worked in various capacities in the NBA, for the Denver Nuggets.

But this gig is Murphy’s first as a head coach.  And last year’s results didn’t exactly get him out of the gate in any surprising fashion.  His first squad finished 11-21 and sixth in the Big Sky.  They were given an early exit from the conference tournament when Weber State handed them a humbling 84-58 loss in the quarterfinals.

This year, Murphy has had to blend six returning lettermen with nine newcomers, and it has been a slow process. The team won just two of its first 10 games of the season.

Junior guard Chris Heine from Horizon High School in Scottsdale is the only local player returning, but the 2013 recruiting class included three freshmen from within the state, all guards: Jaran Hoover, Prescott HS; Travis Meeker, Red Mountain HS in Mesa; and Christopher Miller, Greenway HS in west Phoenix.

Only four players who returned from last year’s roster played more than 10 minutes a game last season.

But things need to come together in a hurry now, beginning with tomorrow’s game against second-place Northern Colorado, an offensive juggernaut that leads the conference  in scoring (77 ppg) and field-goal percentage (51.6).

The two teams played in late January and Northern Colorado won that one by 10, 82-72.

It wouldn’t be the first time this season that the Jacks have risen to the challenge.  They beat last year’s Big Sky champion, Montana, which is tied for 5th this season, in the conference opener, 73-65.

And that’s the kind of play it will take going forward to pull this season out.  But not just once, six more times.

(Photo: NAU Athletics)