No opposing coach on Arizona’s schedule this season knows the Wildcats’ history better than NAU coach Jack Murphy.
And Murphy, a longtime former Lute Olson aide, could be part of that history again Friday at McKale: Bringing in the opponent on opening night for what could be Arizona’s best team in the Sean Miller era, maybe even among the best UA teams of all time.
Except Murphy wouldn’t go quite that far.
“It’s tough to compare generation to generation,” Murphy said. “I don’t want to get Luke (Walton) upset by saying this team is better than the ’01 or ’03 teams.”
But there’s no doubt the UA has a rare combination of elite-level talent and experience that is making the Wildcats among the Final Four favorites entering the season openers around the nation this weekend.
Arizona returned Allonzo Trier and Rawle Alkins from the brink of the NBA draft, has a core of senior experience in Parker Jackson-Cartwright and Dusan Ristic, and a powerhouse freshman class led by Deandre Ayton.
Yeah, that guy. The same skilled 7-footer who showed up in front of Murphy three years ago, as a rising sophomore playing ball in his native Bahamas.
Back in August 2014, Murphy took NAU on an exhibition trip to the Bahamas along with North Carolina and several other teams. They were mostly laid-back affairs except for a game between UNC and a local collection of players known as the “Providence Storm.”
That’s because Ayton showed up to help the Storm upset the Tar Heels 84-83. According to Inside Carolina, Ayton scored 17 points and grabbed 18 rebounds that day.
Murphy said he thought he saw Ayton go for 30 points and 10 rebounds.
Whatever. The fact is that Ayton was beating up on a proud college basketball program before he was even a sophomore in high school.
“He dominated North Carolina,” Murphy said. “We’ve known about him since we were in the Bahamas. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s the No. 1 pick in the draft.”
Three years later, and Murphy has to face him and a bunch of other pretty intimidating guys.
Freshmen Emmanuel “Akot and (Brandon) Randolph are potential lottery picks. Ayton is a potential lottery pick,” Murphy said. “Trier is an incredible college player, Rawle Alkins is incredible and I haven’t even talked about Parker Jackson-Cartwright. Or Dusan Ristic.”
Together, they’re not an easy group for Murphy to be facing, but he’s not complaining. Not only is Murphy an Arizona graduate who worked in various roles for the program from 1998 to 2006, but he also knows what really matters in the one-bid world of mid-major basketball: That is, win your conference and get to the postseason.
For NAU, the nonconference season is just about getting better, win or lose, and preparing for conference play.
“I think it’s great to come out of the gates with a team like Arizona,” Murphy said. “Let’s be honest: We’re not gonna be judged on how we did against one of the best teams in the country. It’s about how we do in our league.”
But NAU may not have it easy in the Big Sky, either. Blue Ribbon Yearbook picked the Lumberjacks to finish last among its 12 teams, while the conference’s coaches poll had them 11th and its media poll put NAU 10th.
A five-win season in 2015-16 and a nine-win season in 2016-17 will do that, though Murphy says NAU’s infusion of graduate and junior college transfers has brought in a mix of experience and competitiveness that is rubbing off on the younger players.
And even though Murphy’s teams have struggled the past two years, NAU last spring extended his contract through 2020. Both sides are committed to buyouts, too: NAU has to pay Murphy two years of his base salary ($185,400) if the school terminates his contract while Murphy must pay a year of salary if he leaves after next March 15 and 1ƒ years of salary if he takes off before then, according to The Lumberjack, NAU’s student newspaper.
Murphy said he’s grateful for the extension and optimistic about the future.
“I’m excited about where we are as a program and where I am, but it’s a tough job,” Murphy said. “Every job is difficult but when we had injuries and lost seniors the last couple of seasons it was (tougher). Obviously, we went back further than I wanted, but I think we’re in a good place.”
UA coach Sean Miller will be pulling for him, too — at least outside of Friday’s game.
“Jack Murphy is somebody that everybody here in Tucson knows well because of his history with our program,” Miller said. “I really respect Jack as a coach and as a person. He’s been a great friend to me and to our program, really from Day 1 all the way until now.
“It’s always tough to play against somebody you really like a lot and respect but I’m excited about playing NAU because I think it’s right on a lot of levels. It’s two in-state schools here from the state of Arizona getting a chance to square off on the opening night of college basketball. We’re looking forward to the challenge.”