Looking to pull themselves out of the Big Sky Conference’s basement, the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks face a must-win Thursday night against the Sacramento State Hornets.
Holding a 4-23 record overall, one of just nine programs in the 351-school Division I under five victories this season, Northern Arizona sits two games back of Sacramento State (6-21, 3-11 Big Sky) with four games left to play.
On a six-game losing streak since beating Montana State in Bozeman Jan. 25, the Lumberjacks are also still looking for their first Division I victory at home this season as they trail the Hornets by two games in the conference standings.
“I think we have shown the ability to be a resilient group. We have battled back from being down. There's been a few times where that's as low as it can get and the guys climb out of the hole,” Lumberjacks head coach Jack Murphy said after Wednesday’s practice. “Last Saturday against North Dakota was a great example.”
North Dakota’s overtime victory against Northern Arizona in Grand Forks last week put the ninth-place Fighting Hawks four wins ahead of the Lumberjacks with four to play, out of reach given the head-to-head tiebreaker. Southern Utah ranks 10th in the Big Sky with a 4-10 conference record, but swept the season series against Northern Arizona, leaving the Lumberjacks needing to win out in order to pass the Thunderbirds.
While a 12th-place finish would still send the Lumberjacks to the Big Sky Conference tournament in Reno, Nevada, beginning March 6, it also leaves Northern Arizona in position to face the No. 5 seed, the top school to miss out on a first-round bye. Currently Northern Colorado holds the fifth spot, a half game behind fourth-place Eastern Washington.
The Lumberjacks will face the Eagles in Cheney, Washington, to wrap up the regular season March 3, with a potential rematch just three days later. Murphy said while the circumstances would be odd, the team would carry on just as it would for any another game on the schedule as Northern Arizona can only worry about its next game.
Since expanding to include all members of the conference in 2015-16, just two lower seeds have upset a higher seed in the opening round. No. 10 Sacramento State beat No. 7 Montana State in 2016 and No. 11 Southern Utah upset No. 6 Montana State last season, with the Thunderbirds the conference’s 12th-placed team and moved up in seeding due to Northern Colorado’s self-imposed postseason ban.
CHANCES TO SNAP SKID
Nearing the end of their third straight disappointing season, the Lumberjacks’ final homestand presents a pair of opponents Murphy has succeeded against in his six-year tenure. While Northern Arizona has yet to play Sacramento State or Portland State this season, it holds a 6-4 record against the Hornets in the past five years to go with a 6-3 mark against the Vikings.
Although four of the seven losses have come in the past two years combined, the Lumberjacks have yet to lose to the Vikings in Flagstaff under Murphy, with last season’s snow-delayed Monday game ending in a 83-76 victory. Northern Arizona’s lone home loss to either school came last season to Sacramento State after previously beating the Hornets at home in 2013, 2014 and 2015, with 2016’s lone meeting coming in California.
“I just think it's familiarity with each other,” Murphy said. “I don't know if that's the reason we have won more than we have lost versus them, because they both have had really good coaches and really good talent, but it is just knowing each other so well, I think.”
Sacramento State arrives in Flagstaff with leading scorer Justin Strings newly crowned as the school’s leading scorer in its D-I history.
Averaging 18.3 points and 7.1 rebounds per game, both inside the top five of Big Sky players, Strings' seventh game against Northern Arizona will likely be his last. After playing sparingly as a freshman, Strings earned All-Big Sky honorable mention as a sophomore and second team All-Big Sky as a junior.
“One guy can’t stop him, not in the Big Sky. He’s proven that time and time again. He’s developed into a great player and it’s just further evidence of the great job Brian Katz has done there. Developing a guy like Justin Strings, who really didn't have many options in Division I coming out of high school. He’s turned out to be one of the best, if not the best, Division I player in school history.”
Murphy said all five players on the court must be aware of where Strings is when he has the ball, as he “is as good as anybody in the league at scoring on all three levels.”
“In a lot of their games, their offense flows through him and their offensive success is reliant upon him,” Murphy added. “They have other good offensive players, but he is just an alpha male.”
THREE-YEAR COLD STREAK
With Idaho and Eastern Washington looming in the final regular-season week, a pair of schools inside the top four and seeking byes in the conference tournament, Thursday and Saturday could be Northern Arizona’s final chance to help dig itself out of the bottom of the nation’s win rankings across the past three seasons.
Finishing 5-25 in 2016 and 9-23 last year with a combined conference record of 9-27, the Lumberjacks appear to rank inside the bottom three of D-I win totals since the 2015-16 season. Chicago State, currently 2-26 this season, holds just 12 wins during the span and Mississippi Valley State, playing in the nation’s worst conference for seven of the past eight years, resides just ahead at 17 wins after a 3-25 run this year.
Northern Arizona’s 18 victories trail behind 21 for Marist, SIU Edwardsville and Florida A & M, all of which happened to win conference games last week. The win total still ranks ahead of Northern Arizona's stretch of 14 wins spanning the 1988-89 and 1990-91 seasons, as well as 15 between 1949-52 and 17 from 1950-53.