Entering Big Sky Conference play at 3-10, the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks must now embark on the challenge presented by a host of teams who came away with impressive wins over the past two months.
Ranked No. 21 among the nation’s 32 conferences on KenPom.com, its highest ranking since the 2011 season, the Big Sky and its teams knocked off a host of Power Five and top 150 schools.
Portland State (10-3), one of the nation’s biggest mid-major surprises, beat Stanford and California during its nonconference run. Idaho (8-4) knocked off Washington State, while Northern Colorado (9-4) earned wins against South Dakota and Wyoming. Even Eastern Washington (5-8) earned one of its five wins against Stanford and Montana (7-5) started the run of impressive wins in mid-November with an overtime victory at Pittsburgh.
“You look at the nonconference that Portland State has had, that Northern Colorado has had, that Idaho has had,” said Lumberjacks head coach Jack Murphy. “You go up and down the line in the league. It’s a really difficult league and it is getting better. I think every weekend is going to be hard and present its own sort of challenges.”
Northern Arizona struggled against its nonconference schedule, one of the toughest in the nation before last week’s trip to Florida, but also came away with an impressive win at Cal State Bakersfield, which sits at 30-2 on its home floor in the past two and a half seasons and swept a pair of meetings with Idaho.
With Montana and Montana State, the preseason No. 3 and No. 4 picks respectively, arriving in Flagstaff for the Big Sky’s opening week, Northern Arizona will face one of the toughest weeks of the conference season right away and without the benefit of its students being in town.
“There’s no doubt Montana and Montana State is a big weekend,” Murphy said. “Not only because it’s those two schools, but because it’s the opening weekend of conference and you want to get off on a good start.”
One of the nation’s best offensive rebounding teams, ranking No. 19 with 13.7 per game, Montana is led by guard Michael Oguine’s 2.7 that leads the Big Sky. Center Jamar Akoh follows in third with 2.4 per game, ranking third in the Big Sky.
Montana’s poor shooting from outside, hitting just 28.4 percent, will likely lead to its frontcourt needing to stand up against three leading scorers who all hit better than 50 percent from 2-point range. Ahmaad Rorie sits tied for fifth in the Big Sky with 17.9 points per game, with Oguine averaging 14.4 points per game and Akoh at 11.6. The trio make up more than half of the Grizzlies’ 72.8 points per game.
The return of Brooks DeBisschop from a foot injury grants Northern Arizona added depth inside, allowing Isaiah Thomas to return to his preferred role. The two rank just behind Montana’s pair of top offensive rebounders, as both Thomas and DeBisschop average 2.2 offensive boards per game.
After back-to-back double-doubles against Bakersfield and San Diego Christian, Thomas struggled in Northern Arizona’s loss at San Diego before scoring at least eight points in the team’s past three games, just missing another double-double at 13 points and nine rebounds in last week’s win at Jacksonville.
“He was blocking shots and I just thought he is giving us that presence. I think, even the other night against a really big and physical South Florida front line, I thought that Isaiah had great moments where he caught and finished the ball,” Murphy said, with Thomas finishing at eight points and four rebounds Monday. “He had the same thing (Wednesday), he stepped up and made some big free throws too.”
Montana State follows on Saturday, with a much different threat in Tyler Hall. One of the nation’s best outside shooters, Hall already tallied a pair of 30-point games earlier this season in which he hit a combined 15 3-pointers.
In three meetings against Northern Arizona in the past two seasons, Hall averaged 19.3 points with at least two 3-pointers made in each game, including one meeting with eight in 2016. Although Hall has connected on 31 of 93 from 3-point range this season, behind his 43.1 percent rate in the first two years of his collegiate career, Harald Frey picked up from where he started as a freshman.
Hitting 25 of 64 so far this season, Frey’s 14.8 points and 3.3 assists rank within the Big Sky’s top 15.
“We have got to get geared up and ready for Montana Thursday,” said Murphy, who gave his team a few days off before returning to practice on Christmas. “It’s kind of all what we signed up for in college basketball, to be ready to go right after Christmas and be ready to go Dec. 28th to tip off conference.”
Thursday’s game against the Grizzlies tips off at 6:30 p.m. with Saturday’s meeting with the Bobcats tipping off at 5 p.m.