Before the COVID-19 pandemic brought us overwhelming negativity, one of Flagstaff’s positives in March was the performance of the NAU men’s basketball team.
Following a 10-10 record in Big Sky Conference play and a 16-14 overall record in the 2019-20 campaign, the program produced its first winning season in five years.
The Lumberjacks will return both the leading scorer and most efficient shooter from distance. Junior guard Cameron Shelton posted team-leading statistics in points, assists and steals last season while redshirt junior guard Luke Avdalovic shot 41% from 3-point range — the pair proved to be one of the more dangerous backcourt duos in the Big Sky.
NAU was the No. 5 seed in the Big Sky last season, but their season ended on a heartbreaking two-point loss in the conference tournament against Idaho State March 11. Although they finished the season on a rough note, there was much to be excited about after seeing the team erase a double-digit deficit coming out of halftime to battle back, close the gap and nearly steal the game from the Bengals. The Lumberjacks shot below 40% from the field, but showed an amount of grit that trumped anything counted in the box score.
According to a report from NAU Athletics, a 2020-21 season opener against the Arizona Wildcats was planned for Nov. 25, but canceled due to an “isolated COVID-19 incident within the Lumberjack men's basketball program.” The Lumberjacks will now open the season with an MLB-esque back-to-back set in the same week at home against the Eastern Washington Eagles in the first week of December. The Eagles had the best overall and in-conference record in the Big Sky last season and concluded on a scorching seven-game win streak. Eastern Washington has won the two most recent meetings with NAU, but the Lumberjacks are a hungrier team now and looking to build on last season.
Shelton and Avdalovic find themselves as the team’s elder statesmen this year as the Lumberjacks will miss some familiar faces. Head coach Shane Burcar took over as interim head coach during the previous season and was officially named head coach March 25. Some of the program’s more experienced players like forward Brooks DeBisschop graduated.
With some leadership positions open on the team, the more experienced players will surely step into larger roles to help shape the roster’s newcomers. Five freshmen will don the navy blue and gold jersey this season, and some, such as freshman forward Wynton Brown, have already seen the team’s upperclassmen set a standard.
From giving rides through town to showing the young guys around, the team’s veterans have been instrumental in getting the rest of the team acclimated to the culture of both Flagstaff and the NAU program.
“Luke Avdalovic, Isaiah Lewis and Cam Shelton, those three, for me, have been really helpful,” Brown said.
Shelton, the team’s captain, is coming off All-Big Sky Third Team honors and averaged nearly 15 points per game to go along with about six rebounds and four assists. Burcar praised his point guard’s passion in a Nov. 12 interview with NAU Athletics on Big Sky Basketball Media Day, saying: “The old adage of a head coach is when your best player is your hardest worker, the sky’s the limit.”
Don't be surprised when NAU turns many heads this year. In 2017, the program won just five games before the total doubled in the following year. Then, in 2019, they added six more tallies to the win column. The increasing trend appears to be a friend of NAU basketball, and I predict a 20-win season for NAU this year.
The Big Sky title is the limit for the Lumberjacks this season.