Northern Arizona trying to fight past injury-plagued seasons

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) Northern Arizona coach Jack Murphy was excited to put the 2015-16 season behind him, ready to get the Lumberjacks back on an upward trajectory after a series of injuries stalled the program's progress.

Instead, more injuries hit, leaving Murphy no choice but to shift returning players into unfamiliar roles and rely on inexperienced players for a second straight season.

The result left Northern Arizona near the bottom of the Big Sky Conference standings and still stuck in neutral since a deep postseason run two years ago.

''Injuries on any level are difficult, but on this level they're debilitating,'' Murphy said.

Murphy made steady progress in his first three seasons in Flagstaff, culminating with a trip to the championship game of the 2015 CollegeInsiders.com tournament.

The Lumberjacks' climb halted during the 2015-16 season, when two of their best players went down with season-ending injuries by the 10th game, leading to a 5-25 season.

Murphy expected a quick bounce back last season, with Jordyn Martin and Jaleni Neely both healthy and a group of young players who gained valuable experience the previous year.

The Lumberjacks took a big hit before the 2016-17 season even started, losing Torry Johnson, who was expected to be their starting shooting guard, to a torn ACL during summer workouts.

Murphy and his staff tried to bring Neely along slowly as he rebounded from a torn ACL the previous season, holding him out for a few games before the conference season started. He never made it to Big Sky play, blowing out his knee again the day before the first game.

Neely's injury left Northern Arizona without its starting backcourt for the conference season and forced Murphy to again play the juggling game with his lineup, leading to a 9-23 record.

''As a coach, you prepare, the kids work their tails off and for injuries like that to surface at this level, it's difficult to have replacements. You're going to either have guys who are inexperienced or just don't have the talent to step into spots they're probably not ready for,'' he said.

Northern Arizona did have some good moments late in the season, knocking off North Dakota, Montana State and Eastern Washington, three of the Big Sky's top teams.

Even so, Murphy did not want to take any chances for the 2017-18 season.

Instead of just recruiting talented freshman players, Murphy and his staff targeted potential transfers to add experience and maturity to the roster.

Northern Arizona got a huge boost during the offseason when Stanford guard Malcolm Allen decided to join the Lumberjacks as a graduate transfer. He was not a big part of the Cardinal's rotation, averaging 3.6 minutes per game last season, but adds the experience and leadership Murphy wanted.

''There's a big difference between having 22, 23 year olds and having 18 year olds,'' Murphy said. ''He's a grown man, practiced in the Pac-12 for four years, competing. He's a big addition just with his maturity and his leadership.''

Northern Arizona also picked up guard Karl Harris, who started his collegiate career at LaSalle and played at Indian Hills Community College in Iowa last season.

The additions will help the Lumberjacks offset the losses of Marcus DeBerry and Mike Green, who each averaged double figures last season, to transfers. It also will give the younger players more room to grow instead of being thrown into positions and roles they may not be ready for just yet.

''I think I've learned a lot as a coach, where rather than relying on freshmen to play major minutes in games, you need to bring them along slowly and not count on them, then they can turn out to be really good players for you in the future,'' he said. ''Age and experience is a big thing on this level of college basketball.''

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