Just two teams are winless two weeks into the Big Sky Conference season, and one will break its losing streak this weekend.
After two blowouts and two close losses, Northern Arizona enters its one-game week at 3-14 overall coupled with the 0-4 conference record. Meanwhile, Southern Utah (6-9, 0-4) enters Saturday’s game having lost three straight by double digits after opening the Big Sky slate with a 104-99 shootout loss against Montana State.
The two schools, picked to finish at the bottom of the Big Sky in the preseason, faced off with four of the conference’s current top-five teams before heading into their meeting at Cedar City. The two schools will play Eastern Washington (8-9, 3-1) and preseason favorite Idaho (10-6, 2-2) at home, followed by rematches at Montana (11-5, 4-0) and Montana State (11-6, 4-0) in the next two weeks, leaving the loser looking at a challenging road ahead.
"Obviously it is important for us to try to win and compete, and do well in every game," said Lumberjacks head coach Jack Murphy. "Saturday is no different than our first four games, we have gone in wanting to win."
The losses to Montana State, 76-73 in overtime, and to Idaho State, 64-60, came in part due to Northern Arizona’s struggles from the free-throw line. Scoring 26.6 percent of their points through free throws, the second-highest rate among 351 Division I schools, the Lumberjacks have hit just 44 of 73 from the line since a 30-of-35 night against Montana.
Finishing under 63 percent from the line the past three games, well below the team’s 70.5 percent total for the season, has hurt the Lumberjacks. Prior to the struggles, the Lumberjacks finished above 77 percent in five of six games, which included two of the team’s wins.
"We definitely used the time to get some extra shots and we had to use the time to get some extra rest," Murphy said, with an illness running around town and the team. "Just tried to use the beginning of this week to rest and get caught up on some sleep and health and also try to get in the gym to get some extra shots up."
JoJo Anderson and Torry Johnson both rank inside the nation’s top 120 for fouls drawn per game, with Anderson at 6.9 and Johnson at 6.1. Anderson’s 96 free throws made accounts for nearly one-third of Northern Arizona’s 297, with Johnson second on the team at 54 as each hit at least 74 percent from the stripe.
Allowing 86.3 points per game, Southern Utah has seen three of its four conference opponents score more than 90 points as it ranks 345th in points allowed and 349th in adjusted defensive efficiency. Averaging 15.2 seconds per defensive possession, Southern Utah spends less time on defense than any other school in the country.
Meanwhile, the Thunderbirds rank third in the Big Sky with 78.9 points per game, while the Lumberjacks’ 15.8 seconds per defensive possession ranks only a few places behind Southern Utah as the 10th-quickest nationally.
Led by a quartet of newcomers, Southern Utah has three players inside the Big Sky’s top 25 scorers. Jadon Cohee, a transfer from Seattle, averages 15.0 points per game, followed by junior college transfer Brandon Better’s 13.1 points and BYU transfer Jamal Aytes’ 11.4.
Playing in just four games since becoming eligible as conference play began, UNLV transfer Dwayne Morgan has already scored 19.0 points per game.
"They have done a good job of implementing their transfers, getting a talented guy like Dwayne Morgan at the semester really helps them out," Murphy said. "So they are a talented ball club and they have some offensive firepower for sure."
With Cohee and Better along with returner James McGee at guard and Aytes and Morgan inside, Southern Utah’s six victories included the Thunderbirds reaching at least 80 points. Southern Utah sits at 6-3 when scoring at least 80 and 0-6 when scoring under, matching up well to Northern Arizona’s defense, which allows 79.8 points per game, 323rd nationally.