So far, Jack Murphy has been doing a pretty good job of heeding that old positive-thinking mantra that recommends turning lemons into lemonade. Since losing his starting point guard last month, the Northern Arizona University men’s basketball team has won three of the four games since then.
But he’s had a little help. Those four opponents included a small NAIA school and two of the weaker teams in the Big Sky Conference. The loss was to Sacramento State, which is tied for second place in the conference rankings.
NAU (7-9, 2-1) is tied with Idaho for fifth place in the Big Sky.
Murphy, in his third season as head coach, has had some real challenges at the point-guard position. Last season, DeWayne Russell transferred out just before the start of the season and is now playing a starting role at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix. And this year’s starting point, Jaleni Neely, played his last game of the season on Dec. 21 against Hampton before receiving word he had been ruled academically ineligible for the remainder of the schedule.
Neely, a junior-college transfer from Eastern Utah, started nine of the 12 games he played in this season and in his last game against Hampton he put up 17 points and added five rebounds and four assists. He was averaging eight points and three assists a game.
But the junior’s real value came in providing Muphy with a true point guard on the floor, thus taking some of the ball-handling responsibilities off the shoulders of sophomore guard Kris Yanku. Murphy was able to put three guards on the floor at the same time, with Neely, Yanku, and senior Aaseem Dixon. Now, Yanku and Dixon, a senior transfer from Arizona Western College, are sharing point duties.
For Yanku, it has worked out well. He helped the Lumberjacks to their first conference win, posting his first career double-double against Portland State two games ago. He finished with 13 points and 11 assists in the 73-60 victory.
And against Southern Utah in Saturday’s Big Sky home opener, he scored 15 points and added five assists. Dixon led the Jacks’ scorers with 22 points after putting up 11 points against Portland State.
The Southern Utah win was just the second time this season the Jacks have won back-to-back games.
Murphy is also going forward with what could become a serious shortage of back-court reserves. About the same time Neely was being ruled ineligible, sophomore guard Chris Miller decided to transfer to another program. Miller, a local recruit from Greenway High School in Phoenix, played in all 21 games last season, but his time had been cut this year and he appeared in just four games.
Yanku and Zach Reynolds, a 6’9″ senior forward, are the only players left from the 2012-13 recruiting class.
So far, Murphy has been able to work around the loss of a starting point guard and an experienced guard off the bench. And he’s going to have a couple of more games to continue working in a revamped back-court rotation. The Jacks take on Weber State next, a 7-8 team tied for seventh in the Big Sky, and ninth-place Idaho State.
The next test comes Jan. 22 when they have to travel to University of Montana to take on the Grizzlies, one of those teams tied for second place in the conference. Big Sky wins will be harder to come by as the schedule progresses.
(Photo: NAU Athletics)