Through hard work and good fortune, Weber State men’s basketball (12-5, 7-3 Big Sky) is set to play games for its sixth straight weekend, including five straight conference series, after losing a pair of conference series to start January.
That’s the opposite from Northern Arizona (5-11, 4-6), who hasn’t played in three weeks.
For that and more on NAU, I asked beat writer Lance Hartzler of the Arizona Daily Sun to fill in the details about the Lumberjacks below.
The games tip off at 7 p.m. Thursday and noon Saturday at the Dee Events Center. Limited tickets are available. The games will also stream on Pluto TV channel 1054 with a radio broadcast on 103.1 FM.
1. Alright, we’ve got to start with NAU’s recent history. Jan. 29, the Lumberjacks play a home game against Northern Colorado that was delayed a day due to COVID concerns, and stage an upset. But the return trip that weekend to Greeley was canceled, then NAU has missed four more games due to its own COVID issues. It’s odd the Jan. 29 game was played. Can you sum up what you’ve been told went into the decisions made in the last several weeks?
LH: What I can share is that there were zero positive tests during the Friday, Jan. 29, testing round before that UNCo game was played. It was originally delayed a day because of a testing issue — likely a test came back either positive or inconclusive. Less than 14 hours after NAU upset Northern Colorado, the Sunday game was cancelled. On the record: COVID-19 protocol was breached. The way NAU releases info on COVID-19, that is code for “there was a positive.” So, NAU then goes into two-week shutdown as is their protocol when a positive happens.
2. Relatedly, NAU hasn’t played in nearly three weeks. What day was the team able to resume practicing? What’s the mood of the team and what is coach Shane Burcar saying about how they’ve prepared to come out of the layoff?
LH: Burcar told us Tuesday during his weekly availability the team had four practices through Tuesday and had just six players, but got a seventh and eighth player clear due to testing protocol following isolation. Mood wise, it was hard to gauge. Burcar tends to be positive but real, so it seems like the team understands it is in for a fight and — potentially — a rough one against a rising Weber State team.
3. Let’s talk Cam Shelton. Across the country, only two other players use more of his team’s possessions. He leads the Big Sky in scoring by a good four points per game at 21.6. How vital is it that Shelton play well for NAU to compete, and where has his game really taken off?
LH: Without Shelton NAU doesn’t win many, or any, games. He has been that good. He leads NAU in scoring, rebounds and assists, and that is almost bad because NAU has a tendency to let Shelton go into hero ball. Against UNCo it worked when he hit a pair of acrobatic shots late. But it has also hurt NAU, like in the losses to Montana State. Shelton’s jumper is the most noticeable improvement. He went from an unconfident shooter who lived in the lane, to a dude who is willing to tee up any open shot, and he is liable to hit most shots he takes.
4. What do NAU’s defensive struggles look like once the ball is tipped? If you look at defensive scoring averages, things aren’t too bad but the Lumberjacks play some of the slowest-paced games in the country and their defensive shooting percentages are bottom 15-20 nationally. They seem to have OK size and some athleticism; what’s the issue there?
LH: Athletically, NAU has no issues. But there isn’t a true shot blocker in the middle. Nik Mains and Carson Towt are solid on ball and make the right rotations on defense for the most part, but they aren’t shot blockers. Towt often hunts for charges and Mains is rarely in the lane as he guards most opposing 4s who float outside. NAU’s guards/wings aren’t the best defensively, so it leaves Shelton guarding the best opposing guard most games.
NAU is young. Lots of dudes haven’t gotten this much college run so the defensive issues are expected to me. Their pace is a bit misleading due to the insane percentages teams shoot against them. Burcar wants to push the pace but can’t when the ball is going through the hoop most defensive possessions.
5. On the football side, what does the post-Case Cookus era look like this spring? NAU will travel to Ogden for the second straight season, what’s a summary of what the Lumberjacks will look like this season?
LH: Man, I have little idea what the Big Sky will look like outside of Weber State and EWU being good. NAU has a three-guy race at QB as it looks to replace one of the best quarterbacks in program history. NAU has one of the best WR rooms in the entire FCS between Brandon Porter, Hendrix Johnson and Stacy Chukwumzie, and those three would be the top WR on any Big Sky team. We will find out if they were that good because of Case Cookus, or if NAU has become a bit of a “Wide-Out U” this season.
On defense, NAU had a slew of injuries and midseason transfers in 2019. There is talent, like defensive back Anthony Sweeney and lineman Eloi Kwete among others, but it is still inexperienced. Luis Aguilar is one of, if not the, best kickers in the FCS and makes NAU’s special teams a scoring threat anywhere inside the 50.