Jack Murphy knew this wasn’t going to be an easy journey through the 2015-16 basketball season. The men’s head coach at Northern Arizona University was facing a tough non-conference schedule while trying to blend nine freshmen into his line-up.
But it’s doubtful he had any idea just how steep the road was going to get.
Murphy called his non-conference schedule “challenging” before the season started and noted that five out of the 11 opponents on that part of the schedule were in post-season play last year. A gauntlet of road games included opening the season against Washington State, Boise State, and Gonzaga – and then throwing in Arizona in mid-December. All were losses, as Boise State scored 101 points on the ‘Jacks, Gonzaga beat them by 39, and Arizona crushed them, 92-37.
“We built it in a way so our young team can gain great experience in some hostile environments in order to help them compete once (conference) play does begin,” he said at the time.
Well, mission accomplished. The Lumberjacks faced enough adversity that they finished non-conference play with a 2-9 record.
And about that idea of preparing them for the Big Sky Conference schedule…not so much.
They’re seven games into conference play and have managed just one win, beating 10th-place Southern Utah, 73-63. But there have been four straight losses since that game early this month, and that win was the only one in the last 13 games, stretching back to the end of November.
An NAU team that won 13 conference games last season and finished tied for third place was projected in the preseason polls to finish fourth this season. But they’re currently sitting in last place in the Big Sky.
That team last year made it to the semifinals in the Big Sky Tournament and then went on to advance through the national CIT tournament and earn the program’s first-ever post-season championship berth. Those extra tournament games after the close of the regular season enabled Murphy to post his first 20-win season with the Lumberjack program.
But he also lost five seniors from that line-up to graduation.
So Murphy finds himself with a re-building project this year that is turning into something of a major speed bump in the progress he has been making after taking over a program four years ago that won just five games in the 2011-12 season.
The 36-year-old UofA graduate is one of the youngest head coaches in Division I basketball and considered a rising star in the college game. NAU is his first head-coaching job, but he spent eight years on staff at University of Arizona and learned the game from hall-of-fame coach, Lute Olson. He left Tucson to spend three more years as an assistant to Josh Pastner at Memphis, where he helped Pastner direct that program to three straight 20-win seasons, and spent another three years working in the NBA Denver Nuggets organization.
However, Flagstaff is not Memphis or Tucson. It’s where other coaches before Murphy have gone, only to find it a final career stop, rather than a step up – the most notable exception being Ben Howland, who left to take the head-coaching job at UCLA.
If Murphy runs the table the rest of the way, he still won’t equal the number of conference wins he enjoyed last year. But, with 11 games left to play in the regular season, there’s still time to make some progress that could give his youngsters a little confidence – and some momentum – going into next season.
Hopes for a post-season tournament have long ago faded. But there’s still a chance to make some noise in the Big Sky Tournament.
Just how much noise depends on whether his newly-minted freshmen players can find their footing over the next 11 games.
(Photo: NAU Athletics)