Northern Arizona returns 4 players from CIT runner-up team

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) Northern Arizona’s run to last season’s CIT championship game ignited a sometimes-blase fan base, put a charge into the program and provided national recognition in a state known more for its two Division I programs.

The momentum fully in gear, the Lumberjacks don’t want it to stall out by taking a step back this season.

”Last season really showed us what we could do,” NAU senior forward Jordyn Martin said. ”With four of us returning, we definitely want to do better than we did last year. We don’t want to go backward.”

The 2014-15 season was a remarkable one for the Lumberjacks. They finished third in the Big Sky and lost in the conference tournament semifinals, but continued playing into April, bringing fans and recognition with them to the CIT title game. Northern Arizona came up just short, losing to Evansville, but a foundation for the future was set after a school-record 23 wins, including four in the postseason.

The Lumberjacks hope to build upon it with an overhauled roster.

Northern Arizona will have 10 newcomers this season, playing alongside four returners.

Anchoring the team will be Martin, the Big Sky defensive player of the year last season, and junior guard Kris Yanku, who made more free throws (230) than any other player in Division I.

They’ll be joined by senior guard Jaleni Neely and junior forward Ako Kaluna, who are expected to take on more significant roles this season.

Northern Arizona coach Jack Murphy brought a solid recruiting class to Flagstaff, but it may take a while for the Lumberjacks to mesh. Murphy’s hope is that they’ll gel at the start of the Big Sky schedule and get better as the season goes along.

”Those four returning players have been through it, know what it’s like when it’s win or go home,” Murphy said. ”We’re going to rely on those guys to help the freshmen get through the grind of the season.”

A few more things to look for from Northern Arizona in 2015-16:

MARTIN’S DEVELOPMENT: Martin had a superb junior season on the defensive end, using his rangy 6-foot-7 frame to hound anyone who came near him. The next step is becoming more of a force on the offensive end. Martin averaged 7.7 points per game – with 7.7 rebounds – but was not always as aggressive as he could be. Martin can score – he had 27 points in one CIT game, 17 in another – and the Lumberjacks need him to do it more consistently.

TOUGH SCHEDULE: Murphy likes to put his team through a tough nonconference schedule so they’ll be ready when the Big Sky season starts. He certainly gave the Lumberjacks a big test right out of the gate with a five-day trip through the Pacific Northwest that could match the opening stretch of any team in the country. NAU starts at Washington State, plays at Boise State then closes its trip with a stop at No. 9 Gonzaga. The Lumberjacks also have a game at No. 12 Arizona and close out nonconference with a road game against Tulsa. No doubt, they will have been tested by the time Big Sky rolls around.

YANKU’S RISE: Yanku had a solid sophomore season, earning a spot on the all-Big Sky first team after averaging 13.8 points and 5.1 rebounds. He’s an aggressive player – evident by his free throws – but occasionally to the point of trying to do everything himself. Murphy is expecting Yanku to trust his teammates a bit more this season, maybe dish off instead of forcing up a difficult shot when the clock is winding down. He’s also worked hard on his shooting during the offseason after hitting 29 percent from 3-point range and 33 percent overall.