NAU will define season in tough final stretch

Jan 31, 2011, 2:42 PM | Updated: 2:53 pm

Mid way through the Big Sky Conference season the NAU Lumberjacks find themselves at a cross roads.

A year that started out so promising with an 8-4 non-conference record, including close losses to U of A, USC and Creighton, now only has two directions it can go.

The Jacks can continue their inconsistent play and slide further down the standings becoming another forgettable team in another forgettable season. Or the Jacks can rebound from their slow BSC start and regain the form they had shown in November and December.

What direction the Jacks choose will be answered next week as NAU faces the Big Sky Conference gauntlet starting on Monday in Flagstaff.

NAU opens the week with the BSC leading Northern Colorado Bears. UNC has dominated the conference so far this year going 7-0 in league play while winning by an average of 13 points. The Bears have a suffocating defense that is allowing just 56.7 points and one of the top players in Devon Beitzel, who is 2nd in the BSC with 18.6 points per game.

NAU’s 3-4 BSC record is probably not going to be able to catch UNC with a 4 game differential with 9 left to play but this should be a measuring stick game against a team that has clearly been the best in conference so far.

The Jacks catch somewhat of a break on Thursday when the third place Montana St. Bobcats come to Flagstaff.

Although MSU is 5-3 in BSC play and they already have an 86-78 win over NAU, the Bobcats have lost two in a row including scoring just 45 points in a loss to Idaho St.

In the first meeting, Montana St shot 8-14 from behind the arc in the first half and was up by 19 at the half. NAU actually shot better from the field and out rebounded the Bobcats for the game, but couldn’t get over the first half deficit.

Saturday wraps up the important week as Montana and their second place 7-1 BSC record try to sweep the season series.

In the first match-up in Missoula, Montana held on to 83-80 win even though the Jacks shot 56 percent from the field and 66 percent from three. What’s a little disturbing is that Montana was able to get the win even though Brian Qvale, the 6′ 11″ BSC player of the year candidate, only played 14 minutes and was still able to put up 13 points.

A full game of Qvale could be disastrous for the undersized Jacks. NAU’s Shane Johannsen can hang with the best of them but at only 6-foot-7, Qvale could wear him down over a full game.

If the Lumberjacks are to truly contend for the Big Sky title then it must start on Monday. This three game home stand will define where this team goes the rest of the season.

The three best players in the conference will be on display with Beitzel, Qvale and NAU’s Cameron Jones making the games even more intriguing. A 3-0 sweep seems unrealistic and unfair to expect. The Jacks have to get two wins during this stretch to still stay within shot of a conference title.

Passing Northern Colorado is not going to happen but being able to climb to the three seed or even the two seed would be a huge advantage come conference tournament time.

The Lumberjacks want to consider themselves as one of the better teams in the BSC and this next week will be their test.

Two or three wins next week sends the Jacks down a road that leads to NAU being in position to go to just its third NCAA appearance in school history.

Two or three losses send the Jacks down a road to another .500 season and a summer of regrets.

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NAU will define season in tough final stretch