Last year, Northern Arizona went 3-8 during non-conference play, and got very little attention heading into the conference season. I wrote that they might be better than we all thought, and they wound up finishing third in the Big Sky.
This year, they currently sit at 4-6, and while they aren't flying as far under the radar (in part because of their high finish last year), there hasn't been a lot of talk about them,. However, don't be surprised if they are contending for the Big Sky title.
For one, they can defend at a high level. They currently sit second in the Big Sky in defensive efficiency, just slightly behind Weber State. Last season, they finished second during Big Sky play in PPP allowed, so their past history shows they can be one of the best defensive teams in the conference, if not the best. In a league where teams struggle to get stops, that can set them apart.
A season ago, their biggest flaw was that teams shot the three ball very well against them, which is the opposite of what has happened so far this year. Though that is sure to regress to the mean, they have forced turnovers well, and have good defenders on the perimeter and inside.
The offense has struggled this year, but there are signs that might be turning around. Sophomore guard Kris Yanku has re-joined the starting lineup the past two games, and played well. They have a lot of guys that shoot the ball well on the outside, but Yanku is the guy for them that can consistently get into the lane, break down the defense, and set up teammates. He is still growing, and might be their most important player.
NAU is now 4-6 after their win on the road versus St. Mary's, and I wonder if they might be flying under the radar a bit. Regarded as a challenger for the Big Sky before the season, everyone seems to be in the second tier behind Eastern Washington. However, don't be surprised if Northern Arizona is a team that can challenge EWU.
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