Team preview: Northern Arizona

Blue Ribbon Yearbook previews the 2011-12 season, exclusively on Insider

Updated: October 13, 2011, 11:31 AM ET
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For the most comprehensive previews available on all 335 Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college basketball, the 2011-12 Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbookonline.com or call 1-877-807-4857.

COACH AND PROGRAM

Northern Arizona coach Mike Adras follows a "Recruit To Shoot" mentality when filling out his roster. His team played that way last season -- ranking in the top five nationally in shooting percentage on three-pointers (.423, second) as well as field-goal percentage (.487, fourth).

A new cast of characters will be taking those shots this season. No Big Sky team lost more key personnel than the Lumberjacks, who must replace 64.8 percent of their offensive output.

"There's a lot of excitement because you're starting anew with so many guys," said Adras, the longest-tenured coach in the Big Sky.

The biggest void is left by Cameron Jones, who set the NAU career scoring record and attempted a whopping 37.5 percent of the Lumberjacks' shots. Among all Division I players, only BYU's Jimmer Fredette accounted for a higher percentage last season. Northern Arizona also lost forward Shane Johannsen, who led the country in field-goal shooting twice during his four years in Flagstaff.

PLAYERS

Finding people -- emphasis on the plural -- to replace so much production will not happen overnight. The entire offense ran through Jones last season, but Adras said he wants to avoid relying too much on any one individual in 2011-12.

Expect Gabe Rogers to be a focal point of NAU's strategy, regardless. A 6-2 junior, Rogers (13.1 ppg, 2.4 rpg, 2.4 apg) ranked second on the team and 10th in the conference in scoring. He was also NAU's best outside shooter, making 81 three-pointers and 46.8 percent of his attempts beyond the arc -- a ratio that ranked fifth in the nation.

Two other starters also return: point guard Stallon Saldivar and power forward Durrell Norman. The 6-0 Saldivar (3.7 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 5.4 apg) topped the Big Sky in assists as a sophomore but may end up scoring more and distributing less this season considering the dearth of proven offensive threats. The 6-4 Norman (3.6 ppg, 3.8 rpg), the lone senior on the roster, was a last-minute addition who became the most pleasant surprise of the season.

"We brought him in as a reserve just in case something happened," Adras said. "Which turned out to be huge because a freshman we signed, Gaellan Bewernick, wound up getting hurt and had a medical redshirt. He quickly went by Gaellan and then kept right on moving by everybody else."

Now back at full strength, the 6-6 Bewernick is a bit small to play the post but knows what to do with the basketball. He averaged 25.5 points and 17.7 rebounds in 2008-09 as a high school senior in Los Angeles.

Junior Austin Smith could be in line for a starting job. A 6-9 transfer from Liberty, Smith (4.7 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 18 blocked shots) was productive despite playing less than 13 minutes per game.

Sophomore Ryan Schaefer, also 6-9, has the height to contribute but hasn't played in more than two years. Schaefer transferred from Portland, where he never appeared in a game, and recovered from knee surgery while sitting out last season.

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Adras signed three junior college transfers, two of whom will get a look in the post. Ephraim Ekanem (8.3 ppg, 6.1 rpg) didn't put up huge numbers in either season at Irvine Valley College, but Adras likes his rebounding, and at 6-7 and 230 pounds Ekanem has the frame to battle down low.

Max Jacobsen (20.8 ppg, 8.0 rpg) did post some serious stats during his one year at Clackamas Community College in Oregon -- most notably in a 46-point, 19-rebound performance. A 6-8 sophomore with his redshirt year still intact, Jacobsen originally signed with Big Sky rival Portland State but was a casualty of the scholarship reductions handed down by the NCAA for poor APR scores.

"I think Max has a tremendous ability to score the basketball in the low post, but I think he can also step out and knock down perimeter jump shots as well," Adras said.

Junior Jywrell Wilson, a 6-3 addition from Cuyamaca (Calif.) College, probably will be the next guard in the game behind Saldivar and Rogers. Versatility is the biggest strength for Wilson (18.9 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 4.5 apg), who can play the point or either wing position.

In a perfect world, Adras would redshirt every player he signs out of high school. Given what the Lumberjacks lost, and the caliber of the three incoming freshmen, that's not possible this year. In November, Adras said he considered Danny Cheek, James Douglas and Colin Gruber to be his best early signing class.

Cheek, a 6-4 slasher out of Corona Del Mar High School in California, could replace some of Jones' playmaking ability. He's also the top-rated of the three, tabbed by ESPN as the No. 51 shooting guard in the country. Adras also thinks Cheek can develop into a defensive stopper.

Both Cheek (15.5 ppg) and the 6-0 Douglas were McDonald's All-American nominees. A three-sport standout at Orange Lutheran, Douglas (17.3 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 4.8 apg) is a scoring point guard who Adras figures will play right away.

Gruber (26.6 ppg, 11.3 rpg, 2.1 apg, 2.8 spg) is a 6-3 coach's son out of Harbor High in Santa Cruz, Calif., who set school records for career points, career assists and single-season steals. He also garnered a fourth-team spot on Parade magazine's All-America squad.

"I think that these guys are talented and have the ability and obviously we're counting on them to be able to come in and find minutes for themselves," Adras said of his seven-man signing class. "It's just not going to happen. They're not getting positions handed to them. They're going to have to earn their stripes and their playing time."

BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS

BACKCOURT: B-
BENCH/DEPTH: C-
FRONTCOURT: C-
INTANGIBLES: B-

In any other season, Northern Arizona would be another year away from serious contention. Jones is the Lumberjacks' only returnee who averaged more than five points game. Everyone else on the team is either brand-new, or being called upon to assume a much greater role.

The good news for the Lumberjacks is that, aside from Weber State and Montana, every other Big Sky squad faces major question marks as well. So if things come together ahead of schedule, NAU could make a run in the league standings.

One plus? Continuing renovations at the J. Lawrence Walkup have the Lumberjacks expecting to play home games once again at intimate J.C. Rolle Activity Center, where they went 12-1 last season.

For the most comprehensive previews available on all 335 Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college basketball, the 2011-12 Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbookonline.com or call 1-877-807-4857.