NAU men’s basketball team brings confidence into Big Sky tournament

With nine victories, celebrations have been minimal for the Northern Arizona men’s basketball team, but coach Shane Burcar is confident the Lumberjacks can turn it around. (Photo courtesy Northern Arizona Athletics)

Center Ezekiel Richards has recorded 32 blocks this season for a Northern Arizona team that starts conference tournament play Thursday. Photo courtesy of Northern Arizona Athletics)

PHOENIX – Northern Arizona University men’s basketball team heads into this week’s Big Sky Basketball Championships filled with a confidence that belies its 9-22 overall record.

Despite their 5-15 mark in the conference, the Lumberjacks aren’t conceding anything. The way they see it, there is so much parity from top to bottom that any team in the tournament has a chance to win the title, and with it, an automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament.

“When you coach in the Big Sky, you’re always building towards the Big Sky tournament because you know you’re a one-bid league,” Shane Burcar, the NAU men’s coach, said. “We are good enough to go beat anyone on a neutral court any given night.”

The Lumberjacks are led by Jalen Cone, a transfer from Virginia Tech who is capable of scoring baskets in bunches. Burcar believes Cone can carry the team deep into the conference tournament at Boise, Idaho’s Idaho Central Arena. The men will face Eastern Washington University Thursday in the first round.

The Lumberjacks lost to Eastern Washington, a dangerous outside shooting team, in both their regular-season meetings, by the scores of 78-65 and 69-62. When at their best, they believe they can match their perimeter prowess.

Redshirt freshman Steele Venters leads NAU with 77 3-pointers this season, converting 45.5 % of his attempts. After NAU’s second loss to the Eagles, Venters told The Spokesman-Review, “We have a ton of shooters. If someone’s not going, we try to get him going, and shooters shoot.”

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NAU lost its two leading scorers from last season, both to the transfer portal. Cam Shelton moved to Loyola Marymount University and Luke Avdalovic relocated to Pacific University. Stepping in to fill the void were Cone, who left Virginia Tech after his sophomore season, and local products Nike Mains from Pinnacle High School and Carson Towt from Gilbert High School, who have improved each year in the program.

In-state recruiting is vital to Burcar, who considers local talent his program’s lifeline. Mains and Towt are just two examples of local talent that has flourished. They are the types of players that Burcar wants to keep building his program around.

“We want to start from the state of Arizona,” he said. “We like to get people from within four to six hours.”

He added, “You might see some outliers on our roster but that’s because of a connection. We are starting in-state. We’re down in the Valley with our blue jackets.”

The outlier on this year’s team is Cone, a North Carolina native who comes from a basketball family. His father, Harold, and all three of his siblings, which include two older brothers and a younger sister, played collegiately. He leads the team with an 18.8-point average and he scored a season high 36 in a win over Sacramento State on January 24.

“He’s having a really good season for us,” Burcar said of Cone, who chose NAU over a handful of schools that included Oklahoma State, Indiana, Penn State and Nebraska. “He’s very dynamic shooting the ball, a sophomore who’s coming along very well.”

Grant Greabell Grant Gray-Bell
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Grant Greabell expects to graduate in May 2022 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a minor in business. Greabell, who has interned with Times Media Group, is working for the Phoenix sports bureau.