FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - The Northern Arizona men's basketball team entered the season with high hopes and expectations. After a difficult season in 2011-12, the Lumberjacks set new goals with plans to erase the bad feelings left from last season.
Under the direction of Head Coach Jack Murphy, the new era of the basketball program has been filled with energy and excitement. The Lumberjacks have gotten back in the win column, snapping long losing streaks dating to last season both at home and on the road. They have challenged some of the top programs on the road while building a team chemistry that looks to be the foundation of this unit.
Murphy has led the Lumberjacks to three Division I wins over the first month and half, matching the total from the 2011-12 season. The Lumberjacks led Oregon late on the road in their first game of the year. They defeated Sam Houston State in the home opener on Dec. 1, avenging a loss to the Bearkats on the road last season. The overtime loss to Loyola Marymount on Dec. 5 showed the potential of the team after an 18-point comeback in the second half and a near victory.
The crowds are returning to the Walkup Skydome and witnessing an exciting brand of basketball. The return to playing games in the Walkup Skydome has been an early boost to the program. The home opener against Sam Houston State attracted the largest crowd for a home opener since 1998 and more than 1,200 fans came back four days later for the Loyola Marymount contest. It was the first time since the 2008-09 season that the Lumberjacks have had back-to-back crowds of 1,000 or more fans.
"I have only seen (the crowds) my freshman year," said sophomore Gaellan Bewernick. "For the new guys, it is big to see to the fans supporting us and makes us want to play harder for them."
The milestones under Murphy have been positive. But the season gets a reset with the start of Big Sky Conference play on Dec. 17 against Montana State.
"We have to continue to get better as we get into Big Sky," said Murphy. "We can't think that we have accomplished anything yet. Our goals reside in the Big Sky Conference and it is what we are looking forward to."
The Lumberjacks were picked last in both the media and coaches' preseason polls released by the Big Sky Conference in October. It is the first time the Lumberjacks have been picked last in the conference preseason polls since the 1992-93 season.
"We were picked last in both polls in the preseason by the conference coaches and the media," said Murphy. "If we are the last team in the conference then the Big Sky is very good. We have high expectations for ourselves."
The Lumberjacks are one of four teams in the conference to post at least three non-conference wins and a road victory entering this week while hosting fewer home games than most of the league teams.
Freshman DeWayne Russell (above) is leading the Big Sky Conference in scoring at 17.1 points per game and ranks among the top-10 freshman in the nation in scoring. He has scored in double figures in all eight games, scoring 20 or more points in three games already this season. The Peoria, Ariz., native had a season-high 25 points at UC Davis, earning Big Sky Player of the Week for his performance after going 8-for-12 from the field with five three-pointers, six assists and two steals.
Senior Gabe Rogers is right behind Russell with the third-best scoring average in the league at 16.4 points per game.
The two high-scoring guards combined for 86 points in NAU's first two home games.
Montana State (Dec. 17) and Montana (Dec. 19), two teams that swept the Lumberjacks last season, visit the Walkup Skydome to open conference play this week.
Both games tipoff at 6:35 p.m.
"I think these are huge games with two big schools that we are playing," said Bewernick. "It is the start of conference and we have something to prove. Everyone thinks because we are picked last that we do not have anything to win for. We want to go out and show we can win the conference title."
Picked seventh and eighth in the preseason polls, the Bobcats are off to a 2-5 start to the season. Preseason favorite Montana is 4-3 with a game against South Dakota State on Dec. 15 before visiting Flagstaff.
"We have two tough games to start off the conference season," said Murphy. "If our goals are to go to the conference tournament in March, we have to hold serve on the home court. It is very important that we play well in these two games."
Brad Huse's Bobcats return two starters and five letterwinners from last year's team, which finished 7-9 in Big Sky play and 12-17 overall. Senior guard Xavier Blount is one of two seniors on the MSU team. He led the Bobcats with an average of 11.7 points per game in 2011-12, scoring in double figures 11 times, including five games with at least 21 points.
The Griz return two All-Big Sky first-team selections in Will Cherry and Kareem Jamar.
Cherry is a two-time All-Big Sky selection and was the Defensive Player of the Year as a junior. He finished fourth in the league in scoring at 15.8 points per game. He suffered a broken foot in September and has not returned to action yet this season. Jamar, a junior, finished in the top 15 in the league in scoring, rebounding, assists and steals in 2011-12.
"They are big," said senior guard Stallon Saldivar of the opening two conference games. "It came really fast. You want to get these wins because there is a big difference between starting 2-0 and 0-2 and especially because they are at home. They are big games. They are good teams so if we can pull them out it would be big."
Murphy wants his program to see success in upcoming league play for a lot of reasons. But he wants it especially for his seniors.
"We have six seniors and they do not want to hear about my team next year," said Murphy. "They want to hear about the here and now. As their head coach, it is very important to me. It is my main focus - the six seniors and this team this year. As we have progressed and developed, I think we have a very high ceiling as we enter the Big Sky. Hopefully teams find it difficult to play us both at home and on the road."
The Lumberjacks begin the first of 10 Big Sky Conference games at the Walkup Skydome this week. Following the Montana schools, Sacramento State and Southern Utah both play in the Skydome during the first week of the year with games on Jan. 3 and 5, respectively.
Season and single-game tickets are available. For season tickets, fans can call 928-523-5353 to secure their seats for the 10-game Big Sky Conference schedule. Single-game tickets can be purchased by calling the NAU Central Ticket Office at 928-523-5661.