It has been a bit of an adjustment for Northern Arizona’s Kris Yanku this season.
Last year, the guard earned all-conference first-team honors as the Lumberjacks finished in a tie for third during the Big Sky’s regular season. The team, with five seniors contributing major minutes in the eight-man rotation, ended up in the CollegeInsider.com Tournament final amid the best season in school history.
“Throughout the season, Coach (Jack) Murphy has been trying to get me to stay positive, understand it is a process and we have to think about the long run,” Yanku said. “That’s been difficult for me, just being such a competitor, at times this season. I can admit to everyone my attitude has been bad a couple of times just with the frustration and all.”
This year, Yanku has been on the court with just one player he had any experience with before this season. While Jordyn Martin and Jaleni Neely were expected to mitigate the loss of a strong senior class, both have been out since the fall with single-digit games played. Northern Arizona (4-20, 2-11 Big Sky) has spent the season at the bottom of the conference, tied with Southern Utah for 11th.
“I am at a point where I need to be a leader. I have been here for three years now and the coaches trust me, they believe in me,” Yanku said. “I have let them down a couple times this year with my attitude and my leadership. Throughout the season, with the highs and lows, I just need to continue to stay positive.”
Over the past three games, Yanku has ceded his usual spot in the starting lineup and come off the bench for the Lumberjacks.
With Murphy saying that remains the plan going forward, the results, albeit in a small sample size, have been impressive. After averaging just six free-throw attempts per game over the first 10 Big Sky contests, Yanku has produced three of his best four performances from the line in the past three games.
Averaging 11.3 free-throw attempts against Idaho, Montana State and Montana, Yanku has hit 9.3 free throws over the small run. The junior has also hit 82 percent from the line in the past three games compared to 76 percent over the first 10.
“I’m playing with a chip on my shoulder now that the coaches are bringing me off the bench. In my head, I want to prove them wrong,” Yanku said. “Obviously you want to start every time, but you have got to trust your coach. I am just trying to listen to Coach and do whatever I can to help the team win, whether it is starting or coming off the bench.”
The turnaround followed Yanku’s toughest game of the season, and possibly career: a two-point, four-turnover performance against Eastern Washington in which the junior went 0 of 5 from the field.
Another poor performance from the field followed against Idaho, but Yanku’s past two games from the field combined to sit well above his season percentage.
“I think he has been aggressive; he is always aggressive on the offensive end of the floor. He pushes the pace, forces calls to be made one way or another,” Murphy said. “He has been a little more efficient from the field. He was scoring points, but not on a ton of shots. That is exactly what we have been wanting him to do.”
While Northern Arizona’s season, which turned into a rebuilding effort when Martin and Neely went down, has been a disappointment, Yanku’s play remains nearly on par with a year ago.
Yanku’s greatest asset, his ability to get to and score from the free-throw line, remains impactful.
After leading the nation in total free throws last season in 36 games played, 6.25 made per game and 7.86 attempted, the guard sits at 6.0 made and 7.22 attempted per game. Last season’s totals came by way of the sixth-best fouls drawn rate in the nation, 7.5 per game -- which has slipped slightly to 6.7 per game and 50th nationally. However, Yanku has hit 83 percent from the line this season compared to 79.5 percent last year.
While free-throw shooting stands as the guard’s strength, his notable weakness has been his field-goal percentage. After struggling from two-point range in non-conference play, the seventh-toughest schedule in the nation according to Kenpom.com, Yanku’s field-goal percentage within conference play is notably higher.
“He is shooting the 3 a lot better, he is making open ones, he is taking good shots from the perimeter,” Murphy said. “And he is not just going in against three guys and throwing it up there anymore. He is doing a good job of finding shots that are good and within our offense.”
Hitting 37.4 percent from inside the arc and 39 percent from outside in 13 Big Sky games, the numbers sit well above last year’s 34.9 percent from two and 31.7 percent from 3. Overall the numbers have led to a boost in Yanku’s effective field-goal percentage, which takes into account the added value of 3-pointers, from 37.4 last year to 42.7 this season in conference play.
Elsewhere within his play, Yanku has either held steady with his past performance or improved. His turnover rate dropped 1.4 to 19.4 this season, his steal rate rose .5 to 2.9 and his defensive rebounding percentage moved from 14.8 percent last season to 17.8 percent this season.
While the rebounding rate rose in part to Northern Arizona’s frontcourt trailing last season’s significantly, it also rose in spite of the Lumberjacks falling from 38.4 rebounds per game to 32.8.
The lone exception in performance has been Yanku’s assist rate falling to 32.9 from 37.3, despite the Lumberjacks actually shooting better from outside, 35.4 percent to 34.7 percent, and nearly identical overall, 39.9 percent this season to 40.3 last year.
“I stayed here on campus all summer, I didn’t really go home. I was here constantly working out with the coaches, the GAs and stuff like that,” Yanku said. “I can see improvement in my game, but at the same time I would rather win games at this point. It is all a process and I just have to keep building on what I have done and what I have worked on.”
While the Bengals (13-11, 8-4 Big Sky) are expected to still be without Ali Faruq-Bey, one of the conference’s biggest surprises has kept rolling by winning seven of their past eight.
In fact, in the lone loss in the stretch to North Dakota, Faruq-Bey played 10 minutes before missing the last three games again.
While Faruq-Bey has averaged 13.1 points in his 17 games this season, Idaho State has ridden Ethan Telfair and Geno Luzcando to its current fourth-place position in the Big Sky.
Telfair scored 21 points and added eight assists in the first meeting with the Lumberjacks. The junior has averaged 18.8 points, third in the conference, with 5.7 assists and 2.2 steals, both best in the Big Sky.
“For the first three quarters of the game, I thought we played Telfair pretty good,” Murphy said. “A lot of his scoring came in the last 10 minutes and he kind of took control there. Luzcando was the kid who really hurt us. A bulk of his 30 came within the first 30 minutes of the game.”
Meanwhile, Luzcando sits at 14.5 points per game for Idaho State while shooting 51.1 percent from the field and 41.6 percent from three, both eighth-best in the conference. Two and half weeks ago in Moscow, Luzcando scored 30 points while finishing nearly perfect at 10 of 10 from the field and 7 of 8 from the line.
“When Telfair wasn’t scoring, Luzcando was and when Luzcando stopped scoring, Telfair did,” Murphy said. “You have to kind of figure out a way to slow both of those guys down.”