Returning home from a disappointing performance in California last weekend, the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks (2-8) will be in for an even tougher test Thursday against the South Dakota Coyotes (9-3).
Recently entering the mid-major top 25, South Dakota is currently the favorite to win the Summit League on KenPom.com and was picked to finish second, just one first-place vote behind South Dakota State.
“We are going to have to come out ready to play, and we are going to need the home crowd to energize us and drive us forward because this is a really good team coming in,” said Lumberjacks head coach Jack Murphy, adding South Dakota is an all-around good team coming off of a 22-win season in 2016-17.
Northern Arizona will need a better start than Saturday’s in San Diego, where the team fell behind 26-3 in the first 11 minutes of the game against the Toreros. Committing nine turnovers and missing six shots before Gino Littles put his team on the board, the Lumberjacks fell out of reach almost immediately against the 7-2 Toreros.
In Northern Arizona’s games against Division I mid-majors, the opening minutes have been a clear indicator of how the game would play out. Against Cal State Bakersfield and UC Irvine, Northern Arizona’s two best performances of the season against D-I schools, the Lumberjacks opened the game ahead or essentially even in the first eight minutes of the game.
In losses to Hampton, Santa Clara and San Diego, the Lumberjacks trailed by a combined 47 points and eventually lost by an average margin of 23. Murphy said the team breaks down games into 10 rounds, four minutes apiece, and strives to win as many rounds as possible.
“At the first media timeout it might have been 6-0, so the defense wasn't the issue,” Murphy said of the game in San Diego, noting the defense played well in the opening round of four minutes. “It was the offensive execution, it was the offense finishing, and I think our guys have a better handle on that now.”
With Northern Arizona’s performance on one end of the floor driving the other, Murphy said you only had to go back to the Bakersfield game to see how effective it can be when the team is flowing correctly on both sides.
“We come down, we get a stop defensively and get a dunk or layup ... and it gets the guys, when they see the ball go through the hoop, gets them even more energized to defend,” Murphy said. “We have the ability to be a good defensive team, but when your offense struggles as much as it did at San Diego, it’s going to leak into the other area.”
With the status of Ruben Fuamba and Brooks DeBisschop still questionable following foot injuries that caused both to miss the two games last week, Northern Arizona could continue to be without the frontcourt that started the game at Bakersfield.
“It’s a holding pattern, but Kye is back,” Murphy said, with Kye de Laveaga returning to practice after bouncing in and out of availability in the past few weeks. “Kye got hurt last Friday, the day we were leaving for San Diego, and today was his first practice, so he has practiced about three times in three weeks. Brooks has been out for two weeks and Ruben has been out for two weeks. We have that good win at Bakersfield and we haven’t had out four and five since then."