As the midway point of the college basketball season approaches, an all-too-familiar scenario is playing out in Flagstaff, where the Northern Arizona University basketball programs are well into their annual slide into obscurity.
The NAU men’s team (4-11) has won two of the last 12 games and the women (5-9) have posted one win in nine games.
At least the one women’s victory, a 74-64 decision over Weber State two weeks ago, was at home so that the student body and the small contingent of die-hard hoops fans in the high country got a brief reward for their loyalty before they spilled out into the frigid night air that envelopes the Skydome in early January.
Fans were also treated to a men’s victory, since one of their two wins during that stretch was at home.
The bad news: the combined attendance for the two home games wouldn’t fill a high school gymnasium. The men filled 472 seats for their 81-69 triumph over Idaho State. The women drew 178 fans to the Weber State game.
Both teams, unfortunately, are fulfilling the preseason projections when the Big Sky Conference polls had the NAU men pegged to finish the season in 11th (last) place and the women a notch up in 10th. Needless to say, expectations for this season weren’t high.
But that’s a big part of the problem. Neither program generates the kind of buzz leading up to the season that encourages student body participation. And, of course, that’s tied to won-loss records.
And winning lots of games is tied to the talent that’s on the roster. It isn’t easy recruiting top players to a frozen outpost in the mountains of Arizona, hours from the big cities. NAU is a D-I program, but it’s an FCS school, which plays second-fiddle to the FBS programs that skim off the cream.
The women’s team, which is on its 10th head coach in its 40-year history, hasn’t had a winning season in 12 years and the men’s program, also on its 10th head coach, has had just one winning record since 2010-11, when the Lumberjacks finished 19-13 under Mike Adras. Jack Murphy took over the reins seven years ago and during that time accounted for the lone winning season during his tenure, posting a 20-win season in 2014-15, only the third time that has happened in the history of the program.
This is just the second season for the women’s head coach, Loree Payne. Her inaugural season last year finished with a disappointing 7-23 mark and just four wins in conference play, and this year isn’t looking much better. But Murphy has been given plenty of time to turn the men’s program around and he’s likely playing for his job this season.
Last year the men posted a 5-27 record, the year before that they had a win-less season, and 2015-16 finished with just five wins. That’s 10 wins over the last three seasons, and this year’s team has just four wins so far, hasn’t been able to put up back-to-back victories yet, and struggled through a seven-game losing streak that ran for a month and a half.
There does appear to be a little optimism for the men’s team going into tonight’s home game against Sacramento State. They are .500 over the last four games, and one of those two losses was by just two points, a heart-breaker at the buzzer.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about the women. They are coming off back-to-back conference losses and have managed just one win over the last nine games. And they have to play Sac State on the road.
There is a new athletic director on board at NAU. Mike Marlow, who took over the AD job 12 months ago, didn’t hire Murphy, but decided to keep him on for Murphy’s seventh season, despite the dismal results the last few seasons. But it would probably take a huge finish to this season to convince Marlow he made the right decision.
But he did hire Payne and had to know how difficult her job would be. She will likely get more time to work on building something on the women’s side.
Either way, Marlow knows it’s time to make some major changes to breathe a little life into a couple of stagnating programs.
And that starts with winning more games. A lot more.
(Photo: NAU Athletics)