Most observers of the Big Sky know two things about Northern Arizona. One is that leading scorer DeWayne Russell transferred from the program right before the start of the season. Two is that the team is 3-8 heading into conference play. Based on those things, it would be reasonable to assume that the Lumberjacks will be closer to the bottom of the conference than competing for a conference tournament spot.
However, they are a team that could be right in the thick of things for the number six seed.
Like Weber State, most of their losses have come against quality competition, and they have not looked terrible against that competition. Among their losses:
- A four point road loss to USC (KenPom ranking: 100) in a game they led by 10 at the half.
- A 12 point road loss to Loyola Marymount (142), who is 8-4. This was also a tight game throughout.
- A four point road loss at Fresno State (142) in overtime, in a game that they also led heading into the final ten minutes.
- A 10 point home loss to Hawaii (113) in a game that was tied at the half. Hawaii just beat St. Mary's and Oregon State.
Obviously, it would have been nice if they could have won a couple of these games. But, they are staying in close games against solid competition, often on the road. That could be a positive harbinger for a better than expected conference season, because eventually some of the luck is going to go their way.
They are still finding their offense (0.96 PPP against DI competition), but their defense has been surprisingly okay. They are allowing 1.05 PPP, which is actually fourth best in the Big Sky. They are especially doing a good job of forcing turnovers, with an 18.8% turnover rate forced.
They have an excellent inside scorer in Max Jacobsen, who continues to shoot over 60% in the post. Junior guard Quinton Upshur has struggled with his outside shot, but he can be a dynamic weapon if his jumper gets a little more consistent. Guys like Aaseem Dixon and Gaellen Bewernick are talented as well.
NAU's record at 3-8 is not where they would want it to be, obviously. They have a lot to figure out still, especially on the offensive end. But don't sleep on the Lumberjacks, because they are better than you think, and they just might be a Big Sky tournament team once again, which would be a nice feat for Jack Murphy in a rebuilding program.
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