In both the coaches and media poll, Northern Arizona is being picked to finish last in the Big Sky. Regardless of whether that seems too low (we will get to that in time), there is no denying the fact that NAU has the potential to be one of the most entertaining teams in the conference this season.
For one thing, the roster will be very guard-oriented, which can lead to an exciting style of play in the right system. It appears that new coach Jack Murphy wants to play that system. He told Blue Ribbon that the philosophy would be to, "Score early, get the ball up quick, and I'm not opposed to early shot - especially ones that are open, really an attack mentality. Defensively, we're going to have to play some different ways to promote that offense."
This is good on three fronts. One, players love playing in that type of system, and so it could help in recruiting. Two, they don't really have the personnel this year to be competitive playing a more traditional type of game (we will get to that), so an up-and-down style is probably their best chance to win this year. Three, Flagstaff is over 7,000 feet, so they could have a built in advantage there.
In the backcourt, they are led by two seniors in Gabe Rogers and Stallon Saldivar. Two years ago, Rogers was one of the best shooters in the conference. He struggled after returning from a shoulder injury last year. If he is back to 100%, he can be a very good scorer. Saldivar is one of the two or three best passers in the conference, and should have a great understanding of getting guys shots in his senior year.
Behind those two guys, there are some interesting options. The most intriguing is freshman DeWayne Russell, who led the state of Arizona with 27 ppg last year as a high school senior. The rest of his stat line was also impressive - over five assists, four rebounds, and four steals per game. He should be a big-time performer from the get go, and it wouldn't shock me to see occasional sets with Rogers, Russell, and Saldivar in the game.
Michael Dunn should also get time in the backcourt, as he made 22 threes last year. Blake Hamilton and Bryce Gosar are two more freshmen that could get time in the frontcourt, but they could also be redshirt candidates.
Upfront, their best player is Gaellen Bewernick, who stands at 6'6''. He may have been their best rebounder last year. In Murphy's system, I would suspect that he will play a lot at the four again, though it wouldn't surprise me if he started games at small forward. Ephraim Ekanem, Ben Olaynika, and Max Jacobsen will all have chances to get time at the four and five spots, and all are more traditional big men returning to the roster. Len Springs was brought in as a JUCO recruit, and he could be a presence defensively.
The more interesting option up front could be Jordyn Martin, who was Murphy's first recruit. He is 6'7'', and averaged 11 and 9 last season. With the team likely building for the future, it would make sense that Martin could see a lot of time.
There are a lot of unknowns with a new coach and some new players, but NAU should be consistently entertaining. Not a lot of Big Sky teams try to pick up the pace a lot, so it would be a welcome change if the Lumberjacks do. They seem to have the personnel to make a lot of things interesting if they can push the temp.
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