Jack Murphy has no real way of proving it, but he’d be willing to bet his NAU Lumberjacks set a dubious record last season.
“I don’t think the NCAA tracks it, but I’m guessing we had the least amount of dunks of any team in the country last year,” said Murphy, a former UA staffer for eight seasons.
The Lumberjacks went 11-21 in Murphy’s first year in Flagstaff after a 5-24 campaign in 2011-2012. Last year’s roster was full of holdovers from the previous regime, and they weren’t exactly the tall kind.
NAU only had one player taller than 6 feet 8 inches.
In fact, at one point in the season, while his team was waiting for a flight to a road game, an observer asked Murphy what high school he was with.
There should be no such problem this year.
Although NAU may not be much taller, Murphy believes his team is more athletic. He has replenished the roster with 10 new players for the season, which opens Nov. 9 at UTSA.
“There’s no question that we’re bigger and more athletic across the board,” Murphy said. “We even had a dunk contest this year. The five seniors that we lost were great human beings and players, but we’ve brought in some guys that will make an impact right away and help grow our program.”
But the most important player on NAU’s roster is a returner.
Sophomore guard DeWayne Russell averaged 14.4 points per game last season as a freshman and started 26 of NAU’s 32 games. He was a third-team All-Big Sky selection and was second on the team in scoring.
The Peoria High School product has put on a few pounds of muscle, improved his defense and ball-handling and thinks he’s ready to lead the Lumberjacks this season.
“I came in last season and it was just like, all of a sudden, you’re playing against men every day,” Russell said. “You go from playing against boys in high school to men in college. I feel like this season I’m so much more ready for it all. I’ve been working with the new guys and trying to get them acclimated into Coach Murphy’s system.
“Last year, the seniors helped me through it, and this year, it’s my job to help the newcomers.”
Russell originally committed to USC during his senior year of high school, but backed off when the Trojans lost interest. At that point, he was considering a few smaller schools — just not NAU.
Mike Adras, the coach before Murphy, hadn’t recruited Russell and in his first spring as coach of the Lumberjacks, Murphy was playing catch-up on the recruiting trail.
On the final day of the spring evaluation period in 2011, Murphy attempted a recruiter’s version of a half-court shot. Leaving San Diego after watching a few prospects play, the coach called Russell and asked if he could come by Peoria and watch him work out.
Russell agreed, and the two hit it off right away. The 5-11 guard visited Flagstaff the following weekend; by the time he left, he knew he was going to be a Lumberjack.
“Fate just took over,” Murphy said. “It was all about timing. He’s a great kid. He’s the kind of guy that other players gravitate toward. He’s grown up a lot since he’s been here, and I think he’s ready to have a big season this year.”
Murphy hopes a few of the newcomers will complement Russell so it isn’t a one-man show. Murphy said he expects Quinton Upshur, a 6-5 transfer from Kilgore Junior College in Texas, to provide an immediate impact. Upshur started his career at Virginia Military Institute before transferring to Kilgore and now NAU.
“Having Division I experience really helps him,” Murphy said. “Physically, he’ll be able to contribute right away.”
Another junior college transfer, point guard Aaseem Dixon, should start in the backcourt next to Russell. Murphy also said he expects freshman forward Ako Kaluna to provide a presence in the paint.
“I really like the new guys Coach has brought in,” Russell said. “We’re going to be more athletic and talented than we were last year.”
NAU will visit McKale Center on Dec. 23. The Lumberjacks will also make stops at USC, Fresno State and Texas Tech.
Russell had 13 points and six rebounds in 34 minutes last year in NAU’s 93-50 loss to the UA.
“I’m really excited for that Arizona game,” Russell said. “I remember being a little kid and watching that program. I wanted to play for them. I’m glad I get the chance to play against them once a year, and all my friends and family can come watch.”