Murphy aiming high in debut season at NAU

The short-term strategy certainly doesn’t seem all that quixotic.

“We think we have the kind of team that — if we get in this situation over the course of three days — we’ll be a tough out,” Northern Arizona men’s basketball coach Jack Murphy said in early reference to his first Big Sky Conference tournament. “So our ultimate goal is to make the conference tournament and let the basketball gods take over from there.”

But based on short-term history, the basketball gods may have to call in a favor or two. While Murphy’s enthusiasm for Lumberjacks basketball can be a bit intoxicating, the pragmatists remind us that he inherited a team that finished 5-24 last season — and that freefall included a 1-15 mark in conference play.

The 32-year-old Murphy is beginning his initial head-coaching gig one season after longtime NAU coach Mike Adras left the program and a few months following the transfer of freshman guard James Douglas.

There isn’t much leftover power along the Lumberjacks’ baseline (how could there be, given the previous struggles?), either, and a late start in recruiting offered little opportunity to upgrade.

These variables haven’t diluted the optimism of a young coach with an impressive pedigree. How could that happen by age 32? Well, Murphy’s trip to Flagstaff may have been taken in the fast lane, but the learning curve was negotiated on two wheels.

After falling in love with basketball as a player and manager under legendary coach Al La Rocque (now an NAU assistant) at Durango High in Las Vegas, his budding career hit Tucson and the University of Arizona.

Working under legendary Wildcats coach Lute Olson, his rise through the ranks took him from team manager to video coordinator and then recruiting coordinator.

Murphy then spent three years as an advance scout and player-development coach for George Karl’s Denver Nuggets. He came to Flagstaff after a three-year run as an assistant coach at Memphis under rising college coaching star and former UA assistant Josh Pastner.

According to Murphy, these former basketball bosses allowed their assistants to be deeply involved in all aspects of team preparation.

“I was in a position at a young age to learn on the job,” he said. “To do things on the court with players, allowing players to trust me and allowing me to earn that trust on the floor. They allowed me, in the growth process, to learn my role. I’ve kind of run the gamut in the game of basketball, and it’s because of those men.”

Murphy now begins his own head-coaching journey in Flagstaff, which has been a grassroots proving ground for the likes of UCLA coach Ben Howland and Pitt’s Jamie Dixon.

Before we provide Murphy with the opportunity to sell us on NAU’s potential for this season, however, let’s take a long-range look at his plan for this program.

For basketball followers in Phoenix and around the state, that begins with recruiting. Simply put, NAU hasn’t exactly embraced Arizona as its basketball recruiting base. Murphy — with the vigorous support of high school coaches and players — immediately changed that.

His first recruiting class included one-time USC point guard commit DeWayne Russell, who steered Peoria High to a state championship. This year’s Arizona senior crop has yielded commitments from Chris Miller of Phoenix Greenway and Travis Meeker from Mesa Red Mountain, two wing prospects with the potential to thrive in the Big Sky.

In an aggressive approach to implementing the overall plan, Murphy has extended offers to several additional prospects around the state.

“In-state recruiting’s going to be the backbone of our program,” said Murphy, who credits Arizona’s population growth for the rising numbers of prospects. “We’re looking forward to mining those fields in the years to come.”

Arizona kids — many of whom have signed with other so-called mid-major programs in recent years — now have another in-state Division I school as an option. That’s good news from any perspective.

But why should they be looking more closely at NAU? Murphy believes selling his new school is easy.

“When you can get a basketball player to come up to Flagstaff in July or August,” he said, referring to locals kids, “their eyes get wide because it’s 20 or 30 degrees cooler. They can walk around outside without getting dripping wet.

“And it’s just a good, beautiful school. Flagstaff is a beautiful town. When they get here, any preconceived notions they may have had about Flagstaff or NAU just melt away.”

The basketball part, for now, may be a little trickier.

Like most coaches, Murphy’s notion of a style that hooks players and fans would feature a fast tempo on both ends of the floor. But, aside from becoming more appealing to the constituency, he envisions an upgraded pace as something that makes geographical sense.

“We want to take advantage of our high elevation, the 7,000-foot altitude,” Murphy said, “and not just at home games, but on the road. When we go down at sea level, we should still be the team in the best shape on the floor.

“This year, I don’t know how far our defense will extend, but in the future we want to be aggressive defensively and play at that tempo.”

Ah, yes … this year.

Selling the future would ideally include a quick demonstration of reasonable improvement. The Lumberjacks do have a couple of exhibition victories over smaller schools in their hip pockets but open the real season with road games at Oregon and UNLV in a span of three nights.

Murphy acknowledged that the first practice game, a win over Haskell, confirmed a potential issue with rebounding. But it also validated the belief that his first team is long on crucial intangibles such as unselfishness and hard work.

Oh, yeah: He has experienced guards, too.

“It’s a great comfort,” Murphy said of having three accomplished seniors on the floor. “Our senior point guard, Stallon Saldivar, is one of the leaders in the country in assist-to-turnover ratio and one of the leading assist men in the school’s history.

“Gabe Rogers is a fantastic scorer and has been a part of successful teams in the past. Those two guys bring a wealth of experience and knowledge … not only about the team, but about the conference.”

Rogers, who missed a chunk of last season with a shoulder injury, knocked in 26 points (including a 6-of-11 effort from 3-point range) last Saturday in NAU’s exhibition triumph over Adams State. Michael Dunn, a senior guard from Chandler High, contributed 14.

Throw in Russell and Murphy’s first NAU team definitely has the backcourt chops to compete in the Big Sky. Just how well it competes will depend on the level of inside play the Lumberjacks achieve as the season advances.

Progress is a lot easier to sell.

“We want to improve,” Murphy said when asked about his expectations for where the team will be late this season. “We want to be a better team in January, February and March than we are in November and December.

“But our ultimate goals reside in the Big Sky Conference. We want to qualify for the Big Sky tournament. Once you qualify, the onus is on you. You kind of control your own destiny.”

Of course, Murphy wouldn’t turn down a boost from those basketball gods.