The buzzer rings at 11:30 a.m. at the Walkup Skydome for NAU men’s basketball practice. Assistant coach Justin McLean stands tall at center court as the Lumberjacks work on their frontcourt offense.
NAU men’s basketball assistant coach Tyler Ojanen, meanwhile, crouches down on the sideline as he watches the pick-and-roll and dribbling on the inside.
According to NAU Athletics, McLean, a Brooklyn, New York native, earned his bachelor’s degree in sports management at St. John’s University and master’s degree in liberal arts at ASU. Outside of the classroom, McLean spent time on the court with both programs in a variety of roles, including student manager for the St. John’s University Red Storm men’s basketball team and graduate manager and video coordinator for the ASU Sun Devils. McLean was involved with the teams in four combined NCAA postseason berths — one with St. John’s and three with ASU.
Ojanen, a 2004 California Baptist University graduate, spent time as the video coordinator at Saint Mary’s College of California Gaels from 2008-2013, where the team won three West Coast Conference championships and earned four NCAA Tournament berths, including a Sweet 16 appearance in 2010. Ojanen also served as the assistant coach for the San Jose State University Spartans from 2014-17 before serving a second stint with Saint Mary’s as the assistant athletic director in 2018.
For both assistant coaches, basketball practices are nothing new. With both McLean and Ojanen in their first year as assistant coaches for NAU, the pair bring two fresh sets of eyes under interim head coach Shane Burcar.
“They definitely help,” sophomore guard Cameron Shelton said. “They provide a lot of insight. They are great leaders and they are very easy to talk to, so if I have a question on the court or off the court, they will definitely answer it as honest and as best as they can.”
As practice continued, McLean and Ojanen moved to opposite sides of the court as scrimmages began. For McLean, the transition from Tempe to Flagstaff has been all positive.
“The transition has been nothing but fun,” McLean said. “It is something that we pride ourselves on as a program with our players, and when I say fun, just fun because of the group of guys we are with. It is fun for me because of the love for the game of basketball and when you have a group of guys who love the game of basketball as much as I do or as much as the coaching staff that I am a part of. It has been awesome.”
Ojanen found a similar transition. With Burcar having worked for Gaels head coach Randy Bennett’s father, Tom Bennett, in the past, similar fundamentals, philosophies and styles of play preached at the Moraga, California-based school, have been emphasized in Flagstaff, smoothing the transition.
From Saint Mary’s to San Jose State, the same concept has stuck with Ojanen that he has stressed to the Lumberjacks: culture.
“The main thing I brought here from both of those groups was that talent does not always win,” Ojanen said. “If you have really good players that are going to work together and do the right thing, you can do things people do not believe you can do.”
As practice concluded, McLean posted up at midcourt with players circled around him. The exercises the players undertook included ball handling drills behind the back and between the legs.
McLean, who primarily works with the guards on the team, morphs specific lessons to individual players because he does not believe in a one-size-fits-all philosophy.
“We have a really, really good group of guards and everybody has something different that they have had to work on,” McLean said. “For me, it has actually been working around everybody, just in improving their different styles of play.”
For Shelton, practice revolved around tweaking and working on the nitty-gritty details, including that of running through passes and keeping the right man in front to make the big-time layup or 3-point splasher.
To McLean, Shelton shows a lot of promise and potential that intrigues all coaches. Shelton’s main area of work they have worked on together is consistency. Shelton is averaging over 14 points a game and has double-digit points in 24 of 29 games played. He said both McLean and Ojanen have become great mentors that have taught him that the Lumberjacks can consistently win.
“I think one of the most important things about winning is that you have to have the mindset to win, first and foremost,” Shelton said. “I think coach McLean, coming from ASU, and coach Ojanen, coming from Saint Mary’s, and those guys just being around winning programs and being around other guys who know how to win, I think it is huge.”
When the buzzer rang at 12:15 p.m., McLean and Ojanen, in addition to the players, huddled up one last time with the conclusion of practice. After beating Montana for the first time since 2014 on Feb. 27, the team prepped their minds for the end of the season and heading toward the Big Sky Tournament.
McLean and Ojanen have beaten powerhouses such as Gonzaga University, Villanova University and University of Kansas.
“For us to beat a Gonzaga and to beat a Villanova at those times, our team and togetherness were right, and no one cared if you shot 30 shots or if you shot zero,” Ojanen said. “On those moments and on those nights, it was just about winning and against Montana, no one cared. It was just about beating Montana that night.”
McLean understands that it is not just about the performance on the basketball court, it’s about coming together as a family and as a group that can rely on each other in any situation.
“In becoming family, we have had a hell of a ride and a lot of fun along the way.” McLean said. “It has truly been something that I am thankful every day for, and I have expressed that to coach multiple times. And I tell our players, man, it is just fun to be here.”