Thursday, November 17, 2011

Guest Post: Northern Arizona's Hellish Weekend in San Francisco

We have a guest blogger on today, going by the initials MP. We will probably see a post a week from him, as he brings another viewpoint and a little more coverage to the blog, which is always a nice thing.

The college basketball season (for most teams) is merely only 4 days old. So how low can things get in that time span? Well, if you ask the young Northern Arizona Lumberjacks, pretty low.

Granted, the college basketball season is a marathon, not a race. And in small-conference basketball, non-conference games don’t have as much of an impact as it does for the big boys. That being said, NAU kicked their season off in a somewhat disturbing fashion in the Hilltop Challenge in San Francisco.

Heck, before the season even started, the Lumberjacks received bad news when their leading returning scorer, Gabe Rogers suffered an injury that will keep him out for at least two months.

The Challenge featured a round-robin three game set between Northern Arizona, University of San Francisco, Louisiana-Lafayette and North Dakota State.

It was a tournament filled with teams who are expected to perform marginal, at best, in their respective conferences. That meant Mike Adras’ squad had a chance to make an early splash on the 2011-2012 season.

In game one, the Lumberjacks tipped-off against Louisiana-Lafayette (or University of Louisiana, if you’re new-school), it was a sloppy affair. And NAU found themselves down 40-27 at the break. The Ragin’ Cajuns 6’9 JUCO transfer Kadeem Coleby (by way of the Bahamas) was a force in the paint all evening long, scoring 16 points--but more astonishingly--blocking 8 shots. A young Lumberjack was led offensively by freshman James Douglas who scored 21 points, but the most frustrating stat for Adras’ squad in the 83-66 loss was the 24 turnovers they gave up.

On Saturday evening, in the second game, the ‘Jacks faced the host school of the Hilltop Challenge, the San Francisco Dons. Twenty turnovers and a 35% shooting performance later, NAU was trounced 69-50.

In the third and final affair, the turnovers were restricted (12), but the North Dakota State Bison were able to shoot an unconscious 60% from the floor, which paced them to a 21-point lead at the break, and after a second half which saw Northern Arizona pick up the pace, the Bison left the Lumberjacks 0-for-San Francisco with a 70-58 victory.

An 0-3 start isn’t necessarily reason to hit the panic button for the faithful in Flagstaff, Arizona. But it raises a question of how will this young team be able to turn the corner in time to be a competitive factor in conference play?

Those close to the Lumberjack program hope Rogers (the junior who averaged 13.1 points) is going to be available by mid-January, shortly after Big Sky play begins. But, what’s to say he will be able to play a major role on this team immediately after his return? Or what if his timetable gets pushed back to early-February, and the Lumberjacks aren’t contending at the top of the standings? Wouldn’t the wiser move be just to redshirt him at that point?  [Editor's Note: From my understanding, Rogers redshirted his first year, so this option is unfortunately unavailable for the Lumberjacks]

The Lumberjacks (excluding Rogers) return only three contributors from last season, two of which played a big role (assist-extraordinaire Stallon Saldivar and Durrell Norman). That means there is a pressing need for this team to figure out their individual roles during non-conference play. The major problem though, is do they have anyone that can create their own shot?

Cam Jones was a special talent, who could create for himself as well as score from all places on the floor. The hole he left in his graduation is gaping for this program. Not only did Jones graduate, but so did Eric Platt and Shane Johannsen, two of the top-four scorers from last year’s Big Sky Tournament semifinal team.

With such inexperience, some young guns are going to have to grow up quick. And without any real size inside to speak of, that young help will come in the form of guard-play. Namely, point guard James Douglas, long-range shooter Danny Cheek and Colin Gruber. All three guys were just at their high school senior prom just months ago.

It might be a scary thought for Lumberjacks fans, but the keys of the program are being handed over to three 19-year old kids until reinforcements arrives. And those three kids will dictate whether Northern Arizona is a team that is strictly preparing for future seasons, or if they are ready to make an impact this season.

Follow me on Twitter @bigskybball

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