Northern Arizona hoping for bounce back season
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) Northern Arizona coach Jack Murphy had every reason to believe his team would take a big leap in the 2015-16 season.
The Lumberjacks returned four players he considered starters from a team that made it to the championship game of the CollegeInsiders.com tournament and had talented newcomers who could contribute right away.
Things fell apart quickly.
Two of Northern Arizona's best players went down with season-ending injuries by the 10th game and the Lumberjacks never recovered, finishing 5-25 with a roster that included eight freshmen on scholarship and 11 overall.
''We literally had one practice last year with our full complement of guys,'' Murphy said. ''We were youth personified.''
There is an upshot to that trial-by-fire season: All those young players come back with far more experience than they would have had without the injuries.
They'll join senior forward Jordyn Martin, the 2014-15 Big Sky defensive player of the year, who played only three games last season because of a foot injury. Senior guard Jaleni Neely returns after being limited to nine games because of knee injury.
Both are healthy and expected to be the leaders Murphy envisioned a year ago.
Bruising senior forward Ako Kaluna also is back after having a breakout season with Martin out, giving the Lumberjacks some experience to go with all those young players.
''I feel like we have a chance to do something special this season,'' Neely said. ''Those guys got experience not too many freshman get and I think it will help them as far as maturity and seeing how the Division I level is. It also gave them a lot of confidence.''
A few more things to look for from the 2016-17 Lumberjacks:
THE SCHEDULE: Northern Arizona had one of the hardest opening schedules in the country last season, playing Washington State, Boise State and Gonzaga all in one five-day road trip. The Lumberjacks lost all three games and won one road game all season. This season's schedule has some tough games but not a brutal road trip right out of the gate. Northern Arizona has road games against Washington and UNLV, and hosts Arkansas-Little Rock and CSU Bakersfield, NCAA Tournament teams last season, during its nonconference schedule. ''I should have had my head examined before last season with that schedule,'' Murphy said. ''The schedule is far more palatable this year.''
MARTIN RETURNS: Martin established himself as a defensive force in 2014-15, able to play ballhandlers out on the floor or swoop in for blocked shots. The 6-foot-7 forward began to assert himself on the offensive end during NAU's run through the 2015 CIT, scoring a career-high 27 points against Sacramento State and grabbing a career-high 17 rebounds against NJIT. Murphy expected Martin to take a bigger jump last season, but it was derailed by the foot injury. Look for him to pick up his scoring - he averaged 7.7 points two seasons ago - in his final season in Flagstaff.
NEELY'S BACK: Neely was expected to join Kris Yanku in forming one of the Big Sky's better backcourts last season. Instead, his season was derailed by the knee injury. This season, Yanku is gone after leaving to play professionally overseas, so Neely will be the Lumberjacks' floor leader and go-to player when they need a big shot.
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