Second year head coach Jack Murphy will take a young Northern Arizona men's basketball team under his wing as they have their eyes set on the Big Sky Championship and a trip to the NCAA Tournament. The Lumberjacks return three starters from a year ago, for a total of six players who sported an NAU uniform last season. Ten newcomers will join the men's squad as the roster will have six freshmen and four junior transfers donning the blue and gold colors this year.
The Lumberjacks return to the court after an 11-21 overall record and 8-12 mark in league play to tie for sixth in the Big Sky. NAU lost its top scorer Gabe Rogers to graduation, but sophomore DeWayne Russell returns for the Jacks after finishing seventh in the league and second on the team in scoring with an average of 14.1 points per game in his rookie season.
Northern Arizona will play fast and aggressive this season as they plan to get up and down the court rather quickly. With a full year of recruiting under Coach Murphy's belt, he believes that the Lumberjacks have an arsenal of players that can play how he really wants them to.
As the 2013-14 season approaches, the basketball team will carry one slogan with them throughout the entire season…What makes UTIC? – Unity. Toughness. Intelligence. Confidence.
"You can't get to confidence unless you have the unity, toughness and intelligence," said Murphy. "So you can't skip and have that swagger without having the other three elements first."
The backcourt starts with the return of Russell. He will make it very difficult for Coach Murphy not to start him, but he will be challenged along the way. Aaseem Dixon, a junior college transfer from Arizona Western, will compete with Russell along the way as he adds another element to the offense.
"Aaseem battles DeWayne every day in practice," said Murphy. "I think both DeWayne and Aaseem make each other better. There will be times where the two of them will be on the court together.
Russell will lead the backcourt after finishing the 2012-13 season as the top scoring freshman. He also led all freshmen in the Big Sky in free throw percentage (.732) and assists (3.3 apg).
Freshman Kris Yanku will add depth to the guard position after a stellar prep career at Taft High School in California.
"I'm excited about DeWayne, Aaseem and Kris and their capabilities they bring to the guard positions," Murphy said. "Although they are capable of scoring, they're also great ball handlers and distributers."
Returnee Gaellan Bewernick started 30 out of 31 games in his sophomore season. He finished 12th in the league and led the team in rebounds with an average of 5.9 per game to go with an average of 6.0 points per game.
"Gaellan is making the transition from a four-man to a wing," said Murphy. "We've been running him at the wing and he has been transitioning very well. He's lost some weight, but not his strength. I think Gaellan is one of these guys that can become a problem for a team. He's a pure outside-inside player."
Joining Bewernick is junior college transfer Quinton Upshur. He brings a year's worth of Division I experience to the table and will be a good asset to the backcourt.
"Quinton's physical nature on the wing and his athletic ability is probably a little ahead of the game," said Murphy. "We're fortunate to have him."
Chris Heine is another returning guard on the Lumberjack roster. Heine appeared in 12 games last season for NAU.
Freshmen Travis Meeker and Chris Miller are two additional players that will battle for playing time.
"The sky is the limit when it comes to their (Travis and Chris) talent so I am very excited about the group of perimeter players we have," Murphy said.
Senior Max Jacobsen returns to NAU for his final season. Jacobsen started 24 out of 32 games as he averaged 9.0 points and 4.6 rebounds per game in addition to 15 blocked shots. He also connected on 126-of-212 shots for the third-best field goal percentage in the league with 59.4 percent.
"Max is one of those guys that leads by example," said Murphy. "He does a fantastic job in doing so. He knows what's at stake for him in his final season as a Lumberjack. I just need everyone on the team to look at Max for his quiet leadership. If we get a group of individuals who work as hard as Max Jacobsen we're going to be okay."
Being a swingman, Gaellan will be able to add depth to the frontcourt and take his game to the inside.
"I feel confident with him at a number of positions," Murphy said. "He won't be a vocal leader, but he puts his head down and gets to work."
"Len has gotten stronger," said Murphy. "He's long and athletic and is able to run the floor. He's a very good shot blocking presence for us defensively. Jordyn has been outstanding in fall camp. He's gotten stronger in the weight room and he's going to be able to play good minutes for us."
"Zach is a hard worker and does a good job at attacking the glass," said Murphy. "Ako is learning our system, but his skill level is amazing. He's an outstanding rebounder and a great passer out of the post."
The junior transfers include Jordan Banks, Dixon, Reynolds and Upshur.
"These four guys bring maturity," said Murphy. "They have all played at a high level so as a group they bring a ton of experience to the program and the passion to want to learn."
"It's a talented group," Murphy said. "They're going to grow over time. They are definitely a well-rounded freshmen group that will help lay down the foundation for NAU Basketball."
Coaching Staff Changes
New to the Lumberjack coaching staff this season is guards coach Wes Pifer. He joins NAU after spending the last two seasons as an assistant coach at North Carolina Central University. Pifer began his collegiate playing career at Methodist University before playing his final two seasons at Penn State University-Altoona.
The Lumberjacks will host Arizona Christian in an exhibition game on Wednesday, Oct. 30 before opening the regular season play on Saturday, Nov. 9 at UTSA. The Lumberjacks will not play at home until Saturday, Nov. 23 when they face San Diego Christian.
Northern Arizona will play 13 home contests at the Walkup Skydome, including a trio of non-conference games highlighted by a visit from Hawaii. Road games at Arizona, USC and Texas Tech highlight the Lumberjacks schedule. Northern Arizona opens its Big Sky Conference season on the road at Montana on Jan. 2.