I think it’s fair to say the strong suit for this year’s Northern Arizona University men’s basketball team is not its defense. The Lumberjacks have allowed 80 or more points in five of their 10 games and gave up 92 points and 110 points in a two-day span.
The result is a 2-8 mark in non-conference play, with just three games to go before their Big Sky Conference opener with Southern Utah.
This is supposed to be the softer part of the 31-game schedule, a chance to pad your won-loss record and warm-up to the challenges ahead in conference play. But this season, it looks like the ‘Jacks will need early success in the Big Sky to help bail them out of a slow start.
However, based on last year’s results, that’s far from a sure thing. The ‘Jacks won just two games before conference play started – and just three more during the conference schedule to finish with a 5-25 overall record.
That’s what is causing concern for Lumberjack fans right now. There’s a trend developing.
This year is a particularly important one for head coach Jack Murphy. The former assistant on Sean Miller‘s staff at University of Arizona is trying to put together just his second winning season in his five years running the NAU program.
The first eight games on this year’s schedule were on the road, which makes for a bigger hill to climb. But when the ‘Jacks finally got a chance to play in Flagstaff, they lost their only two home games – by double digits. The last one, against CSU Bakersfield, was an 81-47 blow-out.
It’s hard to keep the fans coming back when you put on that kind of show. As it was, the Monday night game put just 678 fannies in the seats at the Skydome.
Murphy took over a program in disarray when he was hired away from Memphis, where he was an assistant on Josh Pastner’s staff. When Pastner left the University of Arizona program, where he had been an assistant for six years, Murphy left, too, and followed him to Tennessee.
Together, they put together three straight 20-win seasons and Murphy was hired away to take over at NAU. It was a controversial hire since Murphy had no college head-coaching experience.
Murphy’s first job was picking up the pieces of a program that fell apart when Mike Adras resigned just nine games into the 2011-12 season. The school turned the program over to Dave Brown, who had retired from the game and was working in the broadcast booth, to serve as interim head coach for the remainder of the season. The team finished the season 5-24 and ended with 16 straight losses.
But things had not been going well for some time. The ‘Jacks hadn’t finished better than fourth place in the conference for the final three seasons under Adras, who had been head coach for 12 years. His last full season they finished last in the Big Sky.
For the first few years of the Murphy reign, there was gradual improvement as the team progressed from 11 wins the first season, to 15 the next year, and then a surge in 2014-15 when the ‘Jacks posted a 23-15 overall record and 13-5 in the Big Sky.
That 23-win season may be good enough for Murphy to weather one more disappointing season and still keep his job. But that assumes he’s able to right the ship in time to be competitive in the conference schedule. Another five-win season may be asking too much patience from the athletic director who hired him, Lisa Campos.
Campos has got to be his biggest supporter right now because their futures are linked to some degree. Murphy was her first hire when she took over the AD job in March of 2012, and her second hire, women’s basketball head coach Sue Darling, has already left after failing to post a winning season in four years.
An athletic director is judged by his/her hires, particularly those in the major sports. Campos had nothing to do with the football program; Jerome Souers has been running it for nearly two decades and continues to put a competitive product on the field. But she had everything to do with how the hoops programs are being run.
So, like it or not, whether Campos’ stock rises or falls is tied in large part to the results of the basketball programs.
And right now, that’s not a comfortable place to be.
(Photo: NAU Athletics)