NAU basketball programs…on the road to recovery?

The students at Northern Arizona University may have re-discovered a long-lost diversion to help them get through the cold winter nights in Flagstaff.

Basketball may once again be relevant on the NAU campus.

Shane Burcor just completed a season as the interim head coach for the men’s program, one in which his team posted more than twice the number of wins as the last two seasons combined.

The Lumberjacks finished a 16-14 season that was unexpectedly cancelled by the NCAA prior to postseason play as a precaution against the spread of the coronavirus. Those 16 wins over the course of the regular season are the most by any team over the last five years.

Burcor’s predecessor, Jack Murphy, posted one of the three 20-win seasons in the history of the program, finishing with 23 wins during the 2014-15 season. The 23 wins set a new school record.

But over the next three seasons, the bottom fell out of his rebuilding program. The ‘Jacks won just 10 games – total – during that period. Their 5-27 finish in 2017-18 set a new school record for losses.

Is it any wonder that the average attendance for the men’s games fell to just a shade over 1,000 in the last season before Murphy resigned to take an associate head-coach position at the University of Arizona?

Burcor was tabbed to take over the 2019-20 season on an interim basis, and, after a successful season, the interim tag was removed two days ago to make him the 26th head coach in program history.

And things are looking even more promising on the women’s side, where third-year head coach Loree Payne appears to be turning around a program that has been struggling for so long that it has become a way of life.

Payne spent seven years as the head coach at the University of Puget Sound, a D-III program in Washington. The move to a D-I program at NAU is a big step up, although she did spend three years as an assistant at University of Washington.

At Puget Sound, she led the Loggers to the program’s first-ever regular-season conference championship and was twice named the conference Coach of the Year. Her final season at Puget Sound, prior to taking over at NAU, ended with a 26-3 record that marked the most single-season wins in program history.

And now she’s trying to work the same magic in Flagstaff.

It has been a slow progression… seven wins her first season, followed by 13 wins last year. But the 16-15 overall record this season marks the first winning season in more than a decade and the 12 conference wins reached a new plateau; a 9-9 conference record during the 2014-15 season is the closest those teams came to a winning conference record.

The program has steadily progressed from an 11th-place Big Sky finish in Payne’s first season to eighth the next year, and finally to a tie for fourth this season.

And this season has provided more reasons to hold out hope that there will be a renewed interest next season in women’s basketball. There are clues that indicate the success this season wasn’t a mirage.

A five-game winning streak was the first in the last 14 years and a five-game win streak in Big Sky Conference play was the first in 18 years. This team also made it to the Big Sky semifinals, the first team to do that in 13 years.

Three players earned All-Conference honors this season, the first time that has happened since 2007.

And here’s why this winning trend should continue — and get even better.

Khiarica Rasheed, a junior forward from Oregon, led the conference in scoring with 18.9 points per game and will be leading an offense next season that returns almost its entire scoring.

The top six scorers from this season, accounting for 62 of the team’s total 72 points per game, will be back. That group was responsible for this team setting a new scoring record, putting up 114 points against Sacramento State.

Payne put the same starting five on the floor for every game this season — and they are all expected to return. They include Rasheed, guards Lauren Orndoff and Caitlin Malvar, and forwards Nina Radford and Jacey Bailey.

This team will be back next year, but with a ton of experience to go with another year of development.

Payne’s fourth season should be a turning point in her attempt to rescue a long-suffering women’s program.

(Photo: NAU Athletics)