The Northern Arizona men’s basketball team has done something it hasn’t been able to accomplish in a few years.
Through four Big Sky Conference games the Lumberjacks are 2-2 for the first time since 2015, when the Lumberjacks went 23-15 overall en route to a berth in the CIT postseason tournament.
The two wins have come against two of the conference’s top offenses in Montana State at home in the Walkup Skydome and Idaho State on the road.
In both wins, the Lumberjacks (4-10, 2-2) held their opponent to below their season-average shooting percentage from 3-point range. It was an especially impressive feat against the Bengals, who are the top 3-point shooting team in the Big Sky.
Offense hasn’t been a major concern for the Lumberjacks, as the ability to score with teams has been shown. Defensively is where the Lumberjacks needed to improve, and this past Saturday’s win over Idaho State -- and even the win over Montana State just a week ago -- showed a glimpse of the improvements being made on that end.
Against the Bobcats, Northern Arizona held one of the Big Sky’s top scoring threats in Tyler Hall -- who ranks third in the Big Sky with 18.7 points per game -- to just 12 points on 2-of-6 shooting from 3, each well below his season averages. While the Bobcats were able to do damage inside the arc on shooting 48 percent on 2s, the Lumberjacks held the Bobcats to just 7-of-22 shooting from 3 in the New Year’s Eve win.
On Saturday in Pocatello, Idaho, Northern Arizona held the Bengals to 12-of-37 shooting from behind the arc and an abysmal 11-of-26 performance on 2-point shots -- an area that the Lumberjacks have struggled with all season as they sit near the bottom of the NCAA in two-point defense at 342, according to KenPom.com. Both of the Bengals’ shooting marks set new season lows while Northern Arizona was able to take a wire-to-wire road win.
Lumberjacks head coach Jack Murphy said he had his team switch on defense against certain lineups against the Bengals in an effort to control their outside shooting, and the switching defensive sets worked well Saturday.
“They’re a really good 3-point shooting ballclub; nearly half their points come from there,” Murphy said. “We really wanted to take that away and we did a good job of contesting their 3s early and making it hard on them.”
The improving defense has started with two guards who have shown to be two of the Big Sky’s most ball-hawking guards. Freshman Cam Shelton and sophomore Carlos Hines are second and fifth among Big Sky players in steal percentage on KenPom at 3.37 and 3.09 respectively -- meaning the two will force a steal on just over three percent of opponents’ possessions.
The two each average 1.5 steals per game and have been major contributors on defense even when their shots aren’t falling.
“The mark of a great guard is being able to get in the paint and being able to keep other guards out of the paint,” Murphy said. “I think Cam and Carlos are both very talented and skilled at that. ...They both have really good, active hands and their long and relentless at getting the ball.”
The win over Idaho State also came without starting forward Brooks DeBisschop, who sat out after suffering an injury in the Lumberjacks' 77-52 loss to Weber State.
Murphy said DeBisschop is day-to-day going forward.
HARD WORK PAYING OFF
On Monday, walk-on redshirt freshmen Nik Mains and Luke Avdalovic each were awarded full scholarships that start next season.
The scholarships come as surprises to both, but are well earned after the impact each has had on the Lumberjacks this season.
Avdalovic -- a team captain -- is 12th in the NCAA in 3-point percentage, shooting the ball from deep at a 52.7 percent clip, which is good for the top spot in the Big Sky. Since his minutes gained a significant uptick after Ted McCree left the San Jose State game with an injury, Avdalovic has started each game and has played 29 minutes per game, hitting at least one 3 in each contest.
Mains has seen playing time in every game this season, partially due to an injury to senior forward Isaiah Thomas and senior big Corey Brown being academically ineligible. Mains has posted the sixth-best block percentage in the conference, blocking opponents shots in four percent of their possessions.
The Lumberjacks have just one game this week, a road contest against Southern Utah (6-7, 1-3 Big Sky).
The Thunderbirds have been up-and-down since the announcement that star forward Dwayne Morgan was ruled out for the season due to an injury that led to shoulder surgery. Southern Utah jumped out to a 3-0 start before he was ruled out of the year, and have since gone 3-7, but most recently beat Weber State in overtime on the road in Ogden, Utah, 90-82, snapping a four-game losing streak.
Three players scored 18 points in the Thunderbirds’ win over the Wildcats, with another scoring 15. In all, Dre Marin, Andre Adams, Brandon Better and Cameron Oluyitan combined for 69 of Southern Utah’s 90 points, and each held their own on the glass with at least six rebounds.
Tipoff is set for 2 p.m. on Saturday.