It's time to get ready for the Big Sky season again with some overviews of each team this month, and then eventually we'll get into more detailed looks at everything.
What They Lost: Northern Arizona's rebuild seemed to be a year ahead of schedule last season, where they finished third in the Big Sky before falling to Northern Colorado in the Big Sky Tournament. They won't sneak up on anyone this year. They lose one guy of note, but it is a big loss. Max Jacobsen was one of the best inside scorers in the Big Sky the past couple of seasons, as the lefty was very skilled around the basket. He shot over 60% on twos last year, and it wasn't a case of a big man only dunking the ball. He averaged 12.3 PPG, and was a nice complement to NAU's excellent guards. Though the Jacks do have other big guys (who we'll get to), they don't have anyone with a similar skillset to Jacobsen.
Who Returns: As mentioned, NAU returns a lot of talent in the backcourt, and they may have the most talented trio of guards in the conference (though Sac State could make an argument). It starts with wing man Quinton Upshur, who would be a reasonable choice for preseason Big Sky POY this year. He was excellent in his first year, draining 38% of threes (on roughly 6 attempts per game), getting to the line, and being a solid finisher. He also had a 3.4% steal percentage, top 100 in the nation.
He is flanked in the backcourt by two guys that can play point guard. One of them is senior Aaseem Dixon. He does his best work off the ball, as he shot 36% from downtown on a lot of attempts. The more true point guard is sophomore Kris Yanku. Yanku shot just 38% on two-point attempts last year, but was adept at getting to the line (and shot 83%), and was one of the best distributors in the conference. He was never afraid of the moment as a freshman, and that moxie points to a bright future. It wouldn't be a surprise to see him lead the conference in assists and/or steals at some point in his career.
In the frontcourt, Gaellen Bewernick will be a senior, and it seems like he's been around forever. He's one of the most versatile players in the conference, and a very good rebounder for his size. He is a great glue guy. With the loss of Jacobsen, they need some big guys to step up, and they have the guys to do it. Jordyn Martin started to come into his own as a sophomore, shooting 65% from the floor and becoming one of the better offensive rebounders in the Big Sky. Ako Kaluna does a bit of everything, as an efficient scorer, rebounder, and surprisingly good ballhandler for someone his size. I think he is going to be their best big by the end of the year. Len Springs will also be in the mix. He is limited offensively, but is a very good rebounder and ridiculously good shot blocker. Combined, these guys are all capable of being good contributors.
Newcomers: One signee is combo guard Tate de Laveaga, who sat out his senior year but projects as an excellent shooter who is also able to create his own shot. He projects as a long-term partner to Kris Yanku in the backcourt. In the short term, JUCO guard Jaleni Neely played last year for Eastern Utah, averaging 14.4 PPG, 4.5 APG, and 4.1 RPG. He should provide good depth. Sophomore Geoffrey Frid is a seven footer who originally committed to Cal, before transfering to MiraCosta College last season. He averaged 16 points and 10 rebounds per game in conference play. He should be in the mix.
General Outlook: Northern Arizona can absolutely win the Big Sky this year, and they seemed to have taken a step above much of the rest of the conference when it comes to bringing in highly touted recruits. Jack Murphy has an established reputation as a great recruiter, and showed last year he is a great coach as well. Their backcourt is one of the best in the Big Sky, and enough depth up front that they should be able to find production and create enough balance. They are among the top three favorites to win the title this year, and they should be considered one of the best programs in the Big Sky for the near future.
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