- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 1, 2014

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) - Northern Arizona had some lofty expectations in 2013-14 after doubling its win total in Jack Murphy’s first season as coach.

Three days before the season opener, the mood shifted dramatically when leading scorer Dwayne Russell decided to transfer from the program.

All that planning, all the expectations, changed at one of the worst possible moments.

“That was the tough thing because we had gone through the offseason and the summer kind of mapping the team out and putting everything together knowing Dwayne was going to be here,” Murphy said. “Once we lost him, we didn’t have to reinvent the wheel, but plug some holes and some roles were still being defined.”

It was a tough blow, but once the Lumberjacks gathered themselves, it turned out to be a solid second season under Murphy.

Naturally, it was a bit of a rough start with the abrupt departure of Russell.

The Lumberjacks opened the season with a road win over Texas-San Antonio, but followed with seven losses in eight games. Some of those were close - three points to both Southern California and Fresno - but the opening month was a period of transition, particularly with freshman guard Travis Meeker injured and Chris Miller still hoping to redshirt.

Northern Arizona started to find its groove in December, starting with a tight comeback victory over Grand Canyon, and gained a bit of confidence by playing well for stretches in a loss at Arizona, the No. 1 team in the country at the time.

The Lumberjacks followed with an eight-point win at Montana, ending the Grizzlies’ 31-game Big Sky home winning streak. NAU bounced back from a rough stretch in conference by becoming the only team to sweep Weber State - an NCAA tournament team - and Idaho State on the road.

The Lumberjacks finished tied for second in the Big Sky at 12-8 and ended up 15-17 overall after losing to Northern Colorado in the first round of the Big Sky tournament.

“I thought there was a lot of growth throughout the year and a lot of excitement for the future because we lose only one senior,” Murphy said.

The Lumberjacks do appear to be in good shape.

The third year of a program is usually when a coach fully puts his imprint on a team and NAU will have experience on its side with everyone coming back except forward Max Jacobsen.

After a career that included stops with Arizona, the NBA’s Denver Nuggets and Memphis, Murphy knows the ropes of being a head coach much better after two seasons. He and his staff also have a better feel for the players and they have a better understanding of what’s expected of them.

“We’re set up to do some good things next year,” Murphy said. “The problem is, we won’t sneak up on anybody, probably. As much as I want to be political and be picked last next year, I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

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