Experienced Lumberjacks embark on new season
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Northern Arizona men’s basketball and head coach Jack Murphy embark on a season filled with tough home and road contests, as well as a competitive league schedule in which the Lumberjacks were picked to finish in the top three.
The Lumberjacks return eight letter winners from last season, and an even more impressive four out of their top five scorers. With the loss of only one starter, NAU has plenty of returners with experience on its roster.
"It’s the first time since I’ve been the head coach here that I’ve had the same group of people two years in a row," Murphy said. "It will really help in the long run, and it’s already helped in practice. When you have guys that have been through tough situations together – success and adversity – they’ll know how I’ll react and how each other will react. It serves the program well. You’re seeing the foundation laid down not only now, but for future years as well."
Senior guard Quinton Upshur, the reigning Big Sky Newcomer of the Year, is the team’s leading returning scorer after averaging 15.3 points per game, including 73 3-pointers.
"Que (Quinton) is an integral part of our team," Murphy said. "He gives us different looks offensively and he’s very talented. The next step in his progression is on the defensive end. He’s really bought into it and he worked really hard on it during the summer and the fall. If he can live up to my expectations of him on the defensive end it’s just going to make the team even better."
Gaellan Bewernick is the most experienced player for NAU, as he has been in Flagstaff since arriving in 2010. With an extra year, due to an injury suffered his freshman season, Bewernick enters his final season as a Lumberjack.
"Gaellan is the only player on the team that has been here longer than I have," Murphy said. "He knows NAU. He knows the Big Sky. He’s seen the top and bottom. Gaellan is someone I rely on not necessarily for his verbal leadership, but his leadership by example. He’s the hardest worker we have. He’s in the gym early, and he stays after. He pushes through a lot of things, and he’s someone as a coach I rely on."
Upshur and Bewernick will both lead NAU’s guard play. Upshur is multi-talented as he finds ways to drive to the basket and shoot a three-pointer. He also led the team in steals last season with 52. Bewernick on the other hand is more of a wingman. He averaged 7.3 points and 5.9 rebounds per game as a junior. He was also the only Lumberjack to start all 32 games.
Adding to the talent pool that NAU has is senior Aaseem Dixon and sophomore Kris Yanku. Dixon was the team’s third-leading scorer at 11.2 points per game. The talented long range shooter connected on 57 three-pointers with an average of 35.8 percent. Yanku, who likes to drive to the basket or pull up and shoot a jumper was fourth on the team in scoring. He led all Big Sky freshmen at the free throw line last season going 124-for-150 (82.7 percent).
"Aaseem is one of the better perimeter shooters you’re going to find in the conference," said Murphy. "His confidence is high right now and it’s showing on both ends of the floor. Yanku poses a lot of different matchup problems because he’s a good penetrator and he’s a bigger guard."
Simeon High School (Chicago, Ill.) product Jaleni Neely is a welcomed addition to NAU’s roster. Coming from a historic place known for talented basketball players, Neely will be a junior this season, being able to have an immediate impact on the game.
"Jaleni has a great basketball IQ," Murphy said. "He’s helped out the team tremendously in terms of understanding the game and putting guys in the right position."
With a trio like Dixon, Yanku, and Neely, NAU will be able to push the ball up the floor and be aggressive on defense.
"Jaleni, Kris and Aaseem give us three ball handlers that I trust in almost any situation," Murphy said. "All three can play together. They’re potent offensively and defensively they can pressure the ball and they’re tough."
Another presence this year will be sophomore Christopher Miller. He participated in 21 games during his first season, while averaging 2.3 points per game.
"I thought Chris had a great summer in they practice leading up to the Bahamas," Murphy said. "He was one of our better players. I’m excited about Chris’ future and what he brings to the team. I think that Chris last year as a freshman was finding his way, but now he knows what it is that he needs to do."
New to the backcourt will be the addition of the de Laveaga brothers, Tate and Kye. The Scottsdale natives will both be freshman, although Kye is older.
"They (Tate and Kye) do a good job competing," Murphy said. "You can tell that they both have been pushed to be hard workers, competitive and tough. They’ve made our team better because of their competitive nature. They work hard every day and we’re fortunate to have them."
Jaran Hoover and Austin Lee also add depth for the Lumberjacks.
"Jaran was a part of our program last season, so it’s good to have him back," Murphy said. "He’s a very hard worker. Jaran and Austin both work day in and day out to help their teammates get better."
The NAU frontcourt is highlighted by the return of senior center Len Springs, junior forward Jordyn Martin, and sophomore forward Ako Kaluna. All three players saw significant playing time last season, as they combined for 33 starts.
Springs returns to NAU after tying for third all-time on the single season blocked shots chart with 58. He also averaged 2.0 points and 3.7 rebounds per game.
"Len had a great impact on our team last year as a defender," Murphy said. "He really covered up a lot of mistakes for us with his shot blocking ability. Len’s going to get great opportunity early on. Defensively he needs to keep that focus. He’s also developing well as an offensive player. He works consistently and just wants to get better."
Martin was very consistent for NAU on the floor, having made 65.2 percent of his shots and averaging 4.3 rebounds per game.
"It’s great to have someone like Jordyn on the roster," Murphy said. "We’re able to utilize him in multiple situations, and every day he’s on the court he gets better."
As a freshman, Kaluna played in all 32 games for NAU. He averaged 4.3 points and 2.4 rebounds per game, but his ability to hit free throws down the stretch really helped out NAU towards the end of last season.
"Ako is an important part of our team," Murphy said. "He is probably our best low post scorer at this time. Ako has improved as a rebounder and defender. He’s put in the hard work and can score in many ways. Ako can create many matchup problems on the offensive end. He had a great summer and fall, so we’re looking to get him in situations where he can be effective."
Senior Zachary Reynolds and sophomore transfer Geoffrey Frid will provide great height for NAU, standing at 6-fot-9 and 7-foot-1, respectively. Reynolds appeared in six games last season, but will be looked upon to provide energy on both sides of the court.
"It’s going to take Geoff some time," Murphy said. "He’s at a disadvantage because the guys he is competing with are all back. His size is a great attribute and when he uses it to his advantage it’s very effective. As far as Zach goes, his energy and effort sets him apart. He has intangibles that no one on the team has. He loves to rebound the basketball, and now it needs to translate to games. He had limited opportunity last year, but I’m itching to see him back on the court. In the Bahamas, he was fantastic and was one of our three best players. I’d love to see his energy for 40 minutes when the lights are on."
Alex Stecca will be another outlet for Murphy to call on when looking to make subs. Murphy said, "Alex has improved tremendously from this time last year. It’s great to see him evolve as a player."
New to the Lumberjack roster this season are Frid, Neely, Johnson, Lee, and the de Laveaga brothers. That gives NAU one junior, one sophomore, and four freshmen to integrate into the Lumberjacks style of play.
"I think that our depth has definitely gotten better," Murphy said. "Practices have gotten more competitive. Our walk-on situation is great with getting guys who just want to help the team get better. I am proud of all of our guys and really excited to see them come together and compete against everyone else."
The newest person to the NAU coaching staff is Kevin Kruger. With playing experience at Arizona State and UNLV that led to an NCAA Tournament appearance, Kruger will assist with the guards this season. After completing his overseas career, Kruger joined his father, Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger, as a graduate assistant before taking the full-time position with the Lumberjacks.
"Kevin has a decorated playing career," Murphy said. "Kevin has a high basketball IQ, and having the background of a coach’s son is plus. He’s played in the Sweet 16 as a starter, so you’re not going to find many guys with the resume and pedigree that he brings to the table. Losing Vic (Sfera) was painful because he had done such a great job laying the foundation, but Kevin has stepped right in and he’s done well integrating himself."
After the Lumberjacks beat Cal Baptist 87-82 in an exhibition game on Oct. 29, NAU opens the regular season in the state of Ohio on Friday, where they will face Xavier on FOX College Sports. NAU’s first game in Flagstaff will be when it hosts Fresno State on Nov. 20 in the home opener.
NAU will play a total of 13 non-conference games this season.
"We are excited about the schedule, because it will be challenging early and help prepare us for the rigors of conference season," Murphy said.
NAU is set to play Ole Miss, Middle Tennessee State, Southern University, UTSA, Loyola Marymount, Saint Mary’s (Calif.), Norfolk State, Hampton and San Diego Christian in non-conference games.
The Lumberjacks will begin conference play on the road at Sacramento State on Jan. 1.
"I think that the conference champion is going to win the most games on the road," Murphy said. "Last year we tied with Weber State at five. The difference is we had more slip ups at home. We’re going to be a tough team to play at home, so if we can do our job on the road it sets us up nicely to win road games. We’re the only team last year to sweep a conference road trip, so that helps us. We’ll play in some difficult environments during non-conference, but we know we have to get better with each of those games, so that when we open Big Sky play we’ll be ready."