One step forward, 2 steps back for NAU men’s basketball

This is the year Shane Burcar had hoped to be turning the corner with the Northern Arizona University men’s basketball program.

However, it looks like that corner has moved a little farther down the street.

Burcar, in his second season as NAU head coach, is having the same difficulties as those who came before him, trying to revive a moribund basketball program attempting to remain relevant as a Division I competitor.  His Lumberjacks are off to a 1-6 start, well off the pace of last season’s 5-2 opening run.

And what’s more concerning,  they’re getting beat by point margins that spell trouble ahead.

The Lumberjacks are losing games by an average of 26 points a game.  Their lone win came a week ago when they beat University of Denver, a D-I team whose only win so far was over Regis University, a Division II team.   And that NAU win over Denver was by just three points, 68-65.

Granted, there have been unique challenges this season.  NAU’s first three games on the 2020-21 schedule were postponed due to coronavirus issues, and that was followed by another postponement after just two games on the court, and then a game was cancelled a week later.  It’s been a roller-coaster ride for the ‘Jacks.

It’s tough to build any kind of team chemistry or consistency of play under those circumstances.  But, then, other teams around the country are experiencing the same challenges, but winning games.  No sympathy here.

Also, we recognize that the Jacks had to start their schedule against Pac-12 power University of Arizona and then played No. 1-ranked Gonzaga in their last game, two days ago.  The Jacks lost by 43 points to the Wildcats and by 30 to the Zags — which shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, considering the disparity in talent levels.

But if you remove both of those games from the stats, the other four losses were by an average 21 points a game.  Overall, NAU is averaging just a shade under 59 points a game.  Their opponents average 80 per.

Burcar’s hire was something of an experiment.  He came directly from the high school ranks to coach at a D-I college program.

He was hired in April of 2018 to serve as an assistant on Jack Murphy‘s staff and was tapped to serve as interim head coach in June of the next year when Murphy resigned to return to the UofA coaching staff after spending seven years trying to build a contender in the Big Sky Conference.  The ‘interim’ tag was removed last March.

After 12 years directing a highly-successful basketball program at Mesa High School, the Michigan transplant signed on as Murphy’s assistant for the 2018-19 season, which ended with a 10-21 record and eight conference wins.  The season before that, the team set a new school record for losses by finishing with a 5-27 record.  After his final four seasons, during which his teams won a combined 20 games, Murphy saw the writing on the wall and decided to exit stage left.

Burcar knew what he was getting into when he accepted the job as interim head coach for a program mired in mediocrity for more than a decade.  Murphy won 23 games in his third season in 2014-2015, but it has been all downhill since then.  That 23-win season is just the third 20-win season in the last 40 years, during which time NAU has run through 10 head coaches.

His season as the interim head coach showed some promising improvement as the Lumberjacks finished 16-14, which was six wins better than the previous season.  Fortunately, Murphy hadn’t left the cupboards bare.  The new coach inherited the top six scorers from the year before, which accounted for nearly 90 percent of the teams’ offensive output.

But Burcar is beginning now to rely on the fruits of his own recruiting efforts.

It’s not easy winning in Flagstaff, which is little more than an afterthought among in-state recruiting prospects who have two in-state Power 5 programs to consider in Tempe and Tucson.  Bringing in top prospects to watch a home game that is attended by fewer fans than they had in high school is not an easy sell.

Burcar can coach.  He had just one losing season in more than a decade at Mesa High, posted six seasons of 20 or more wins, won a Division I state championship in 2016, and was selected as region Coach of the Year six times.

However, it’s a different game at this level.  Murphy had extensive experience on a college bench after eight years at Arizona and three years as an assistant at Memphis.  He also spent three years in the NBA, working under George Karl at the Denver Nuggets.

But he hadn’t been a head coach.  And the same is true for his successor.

Burcar wouldn’t be blamed if he is beginning to question his decision to make the leap to the next level.  He might be thinking of the program he left behind at Mesa, where a 16-2 JV team and a 15-3 freshman squad were waiting to move up and help produce more 20-win seasons.

But he’s left that world behind.  And now he’s trying to adjust to a new, more complicated way of life.

And find a success formula in Flagstaff that has eluded so many others before him.

(Photo: NAU Athletics)