For head coach Jack Murphy, Northern Arizona’s roster turnover, with eight of its 17 players new to the program, sets the Lumberjacks up with a helpful problem.
“The great part is we have a lot of depth and guys that we believe in,” Murphy said. “The tough part is we are just trying to figure out where all these pieces of the puzzle fit together.”
Northern Arizona opens its regular season in Tucson on Friday, facing the No. 3 Wildcats for the fourth time in Murphy’s tenure as the Lumberjacks' head coach. With an average score of 87-44 in the past three meetings, Northern Arizona’s first game will be used more as a learning opportunity, giving Murphy a chance to see who will start and possibly play alongside each other this season.
Admitting the starting five against the Wildcats might not start Monday’s home opener against Embry Riddle, or even the second half of Friday’s game for that matter, the fight for playing time will continue all season.
With Torry Johnson returning from an ACL tear, and JoJo Anderson, Kye de Laveaga and Chris Bowling combining for 36 starts a year ago, Northern Arizona’s three backcourt spots will be filled by some combination of seven players. Having added in transfers Gino Littles, Malcolm Allen and Karl Harris, Murphy admitted he isn’t even sure who will play or how much yet.
“I do know that Torry has proven that he’s earned a great shot at it. Chris Bowling has earned minutes,” Murphy said. “After that, you know Kye has traditionally played well and then JoJo, too, last year. But in terms of this fall and mixing all seven of those guys in, it’s going to be a work in progress for a little bit. Just figuring out lineups and who plays well together and whatnot.”
Friday will be Johnson’s first game since March 8, 2016, having missed all of last season with a knee injury suffered during summer practice.
“It's just humbling and I am blessed to be back on the court. I never went through a major injury,” Johnson said. “The ACL just made me appreciate it and I am grateful to be back playing. It’s very exciting, I’d want to play right now if I could. I’m just practicing as hard as I can leading up and making sure I am fully prepared.”
As for the frontcourt, another four players figure to immediately factor into Northern Arizona’s rotation, with transfer Ruben Fuamba joining Brooks DeBisschop, Corey Brown and Isaiah Thomas.
Needing to replace Ako Kaluna and Jordyn Martin, who started 61 games combined, the three returners each started one game for Northern Arizona last year.
“I think Brooks has been consistent. Corey has been out with an injury and he just got back a couple days ago. Early on Corey was one of our best players -- not just post players, but players. So it is good to have him back and Isaiah and Ruben have been competing all camp,” Murphy said. “But I would say on a consistent basis both health-wise and just playing, Brooks has been the best that we have had."