Until now, the Northern Arizona University men’s basketball teams have had some respite from their semi-regular confrontation with Pac-12 power, University of Arizona. Three times in the last 10 years, the Lumberjacks’ non-conference schedule didn’t include the Wildcats.
But that’s about to change. Beginning next year, the ‘Jacks will open each season by facing off with the Wildcats.
According to a just-announced 10-year scheduling partnership with their neighbors to the south, the Lumberjacks’ basketball team will open each season with a head-to-head match-up with the Wildcats in McKale Center in Tucson, creating a regular tip-off event to each season.
The agreement, which begins with the 2021-22 season, covers all 13 sports programs at the Flagstaff school. A home-and-home format will be used whenever possible.
The administrations at both schools explain that the decade-long scheduling partnership will “be used to strengthen the in-state partnership between the two institutions, while providing increased scheduling consistency for both (athletics) departments.”
UA Vice President and Director of Athletics Dave Heeke explains the benefits of the arrangement this way: “Ensuring our sport programs compete within our great state enhances the student-athlete experience, generates excitement for our fans, eases non-conference scheduling challenges, and creates a stronger economic impact within our state’s footprint.”
That part about generating excitement for the fans might be a stretch. At least with the primary, revenue-generating ‘major’ sports of football and basketball, there’s not much excitement in contests that are pretty much decided before they begin.
And the four-hour drive from Flag to Tucson guarantees a battlefield filled with little else than noisy UofA fans. A rivalry might generate the kind of commitment it takes to travel, but it’s difficult to develop the passion of a rivalry game when there is such an imbalance of power.
For basketball, the average margin of victory for the Wildcats over the past 10 seasons is 37 points, although the Jacks did come within 14 points in a 39-53 loss during the 2011-12 season. The worst beat-down came six years ago when NAU managed just 37 points and lost by 55 points.
Football is pretty much in the same boat as basketball. Since 2010, NAU has played Arizona four times, with the Wildcats running up a 245-88 advantage. The last meeting, in 2019, Arizona piled up 720 yards of offense and had scored 51 points by halftime on the way to a 65-41 rout — which would have been much worse had the Cats not played many of their reserves in the second half.
The Lumberjacks’ worst football beating came in 2015 when they were crushed, 77-13.
However, the scheduling for that sport won’t change that much since the football teams are already set up for early non-conference meetings through 2027.
The real incentive for NAU, of course, is the money that will be generated by adding a ‘soft’ win to the Cats’ schedule. The Jacks are paid well for the beatings they take.
Heeke sees the partnership contributing to a vision of what intercollegiate athletics may look like in our state and region for the immediate future. “An emphasis on regionalized scheduling is certainly something that has become a priority,” he notes.
It’s success, however, will depend on whether the fans can maintain an interest in lopsided outcomes.