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Injuries mounting, Shelton keeps scoring as NAU men's basketball faces lineup shakeup
NORTHERN ARIZONA MEN’S BASKETBALL

Injuries mounting, Shelton keeps scoring as NAU men's basketball faces lineup shakeup

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The injuries are starting to pile up for the Northern Arizona men's basketball team.

Luke Avdalovic is still out with a concussion and won't travel to Montana this week, Nik Mains is highly questionable for Thursday's game and unclear for Saturday, and freshman big Olgierd Dmochewicz hasn't even seen the floor due to lingering injuries.

"It's an opportunity," Lumberjacks head coach Shane Burcar said. "When someone else steps in, it gives them their chance. The good thing about it is that is gives someone else a chance, good or bad. We are going to get some good minutes out of some players. ... I'm not really concerned about it, but it is a very valid question." 

Dmochewicz is likely out for the rest of the season, Burcar confirmed during his weekly media availability on Tuesday.

But with Mains, a 38% 3-point shooter, and Avdalovic, a 42% 3-point shooter, both out, the floor just got a lot tighter.

The gravity the two have when on the court together is hard to understate, especially when fellow marksman Keith Haymon is there too. Mains pulls opposing bigs away from the hoop as a stretch big himself, while Avdalovic is often shadowed and rarely helped off of by opposing defenses, leaving All-Big Sky guard Cameron Shelton with plenty of space to attack the rim and set up teammates for easy buckets.

Against Idaho State Saturday, the first game Avdalovic fully missed after hitting his head on the hardwood a minute into last Thursday's contest, the Lumberjacks struggled to have clean possessions, often resorting to heaves at the end of the shot clock.

Northern Arizona still found a way to shoot 6 of 17 from deep, but five of those attempts were by Shelton and two were forced heaves by Haymon. With two high-level shooters out, expect the offense to look a bit different.

"We made a couple tweaks to our offense to just fit our personnel," Burcar said. "We don't want guys just cranking 3-pointers."

Other times, Burcar said, the team looked to Shelton to make a play out of nothing. There was minimal movement and Haymon, the only other proven shooter with Mains and Avdalovic out going forward, struggled to get free for clean looks when Mains was off the floor.

"We found ourselves, if you will, with a great lineup of Keith, Luke, Nik, a five man and Cam on the floor, and that is really hard to guard," Burcar said. " ... We just have to find other ways to score. ... In these situations you will learn a lot about your younger guys and learn a lot about your team."

With Avdalovic for sure out and Mains likely missing Thursday's game against Montana (5-6, 1-3 Big Sky), the hosting Grizzlies will have ample chance to pack the paint against Northern Arizona (3-8, 2-3 Big Sky) and Shelton's driving lanes.

Throw in Montana's size -- four true bigs standing 6-foot-8 or taller -- against the smaller but athletic lineup the Lumberjacks will roll out, and the battle on the glass will be something to watch.

Freshman forward Wynton Brown Jr. is expected to take Mains' spot in the starting lineup after the young Lumberjack posted 15 points, six rebounds and one block in his first real college game -- as his 24 minutes played nearly matched the 27 he had played all season. 

Of all people, Burcar understands he can't rely on Brown -- a 6-foot-8, 215-pound rangy athlete -- to average 15 and six each night, but the effort is what Burcar liked and was why he even gave Brown the chance to play in the first place.

"I think Wynton is going to be a consistent rebounder with us because of his effort," Burcar said. "But to get 15 out of him every night, that's not realistic. Sometimes you can get 15 because of the element of surprise, like, 'Who is No. 22 coming into the game?' so I don't think there will be as much of an element of surprise now."

Pushing Shelton too much?

There is reason to think that the Lumberjacks are relying on Shelton's heroics and playmaking abilities a little too much, and the injuries to Mains and Avdalovic will only make the team lean on Shelton more.

Shelton has never played under 30 minutes this season and has played 43, 40 and 39 minutes in the past three games. He plays 90.6% of the total minutes, according to KenPom.com, which places Shelton 35th in the entire NCAA.

The production has definitely been there, with eight straight games of 20 or more points while averaging a Big Sky Conference-best 22.2 points per game and playing a league-high 36.8 minutes per contest.

Burcar acknowledged the intense workload on Shelton, who is 12th in the NCAA in fouls drawn per 40 minutes at 7.9, according to KenPom, but wasn't too worried about it. 

"You know what, I like those numbers," Burcar said. " ... If you're shooting 20 free throws you get plenty of rest. That doesn't concern me at all. He takes care of his body, he is serious about his nutrition, so no that doesn't worry me at all."

Past the frustration

There was plenty of frustration seen from Burcar during and after Saturday's loss to Idaho State.

Burcar called out players' lack of execution and blown assignments, but also had his team's back in getting a technical while vouching for his squad. He said Tuesday the team responded well since the loss.

"The guys are great, they are competitive and we are building this culture to have high-character guys," Burcar said. " ... There are no issues on our team as far as finger-pointing or anything like that."

Game info

Thursday's tip in Missoula, Montana, is scheduled for 5 p.m. and Saturday's game is slated for 11 a.m.

Lance Hartzler can be reached at 556-2251 or at lhartzler@azdailysun.com. Follow him on Twitter @lance_hartz.

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