The Arizona Wildcats men's basketball team will host in-state brethren Northern Arizona University Lumberjacks on Wednesday. Arizona will put a 44 game home winning streak on the line against the Lumberjacks, who have lost three straight. The two meet on Wednesday night at 8 PM MST on Pac-12 Networks.
It's forgivable if Arizona fans aren't all too familiar with NAU's team. I have a bit of inside knowledge as an NAU alumnus and season ticket holder. But when you need information on all things Lumberjacks, there's no better source than the Voice of NAU sports, Mitch Strohman. Mitch was kind enough to answer a few questions in preparation for Wednesday's game. Thanks Mitch!
AZDS: NAU's CIT run last year may not have been national headline news, but it was arguably the best season in the history of the Lumberjack basketball program. Having attended those playoff games in the Skydome, I can say they were among the most exciting sporting events I've been to. How does NAU follow up a year like that? Are expectations Big Sky high?
Mitch: When you put together the greatest season in a program's history, you put together a tough act to follow! In 2014-2015 NAU: had the most wins in a season (23), the most road wins in a season in the Division-1 era (8), the first ever postseason win in a national tournament (beating Grand Canyon University in the 1st Round of the CIT), added three more postseason tournament wins in the CIT after beating GCU, playing before the largest home game crowd in anyone's memory (the CIT Semifinal win over NJIT in the Skydome), was the last Division-1 team from Arizona still standing after the Arizona Wildcats exit from the NCAA Tournament, and finished as the runner-up in the CIT. Like I said, that's a tough act to follow. Expectations for this season were tempered by the fact that most of the Lumberjacks' offense graduated after last season and the 2015-16 Lumberjacks have an astonishing eleven freshmen on the roster, ten of those being true freshmen! NAU is one of the youngest teams in all of Division-1.
AZDS: Jordyn Martin, the reigning 2014 Big Sky defensive player of the year, is out for the season with a lower leg injury. How does NAU go about replacing his production both on the defensive end of the court and the glass?
Mitch: Losing Jordyn Martin was a blow not only because the Lumberjacks lose his defensive presence in the paint and his uncanny rebounding abilities, but because NAU loses the experience Martin has. J-Mart had 100 games of experience coming into his senior season and as one of only four upperclassmen to have any meaningful court time on the NAU roster. Losing Martin's experience is very difficult to replace. Think I'm not being fair about that statement? The group of Lumberjacks taking the place of senior Jordyn Martin in the NAU starting lineup and filling his minutes on the court are all true freshman! Losing your most experienced player (by far) on your roster and a conference Defensive Player of the Year to boot and replacing that with several true freshman, would be a challenge for any Head Coach.
AZDS: Kris Yanku is poised to break the NAU record for free throws made in his Junior season. He's also one of the few returning starters from last year's CIT run. He's a bit of an enigma on the court; some nights, he'll put up fantastic numbers and play tenacious defense, others he's more than a bit turnover prone and has trouble shooting the ball. Which Yanku shows up against Arizona?
Mitch: The Kris Yanku that shows up against Arizona Wednesday will be the Kris Yanku that will be fearless against Arizona's defense and big men in the paint. To be fair, that's the Kris Yanku that shows up every night. Yanku will always put pressure on your defense to stop his dribble penetration and his amazing ability to draw fouls and get to the free throw line. Yanku was among the nation's leaders last season in free throws made per game and in free throws attempted per game, and his averages in those categories this season are similar to last season's averages.
AZDS: You've become fairly renowned on the internet for a few of your radio calls over the years. Can we request some Mitch Magic over the airwaves in McKale Center?
Mitch: I'm renowned? Me? Good Heavens, that's news to me! In my humble opinion, if you want renowned, look no further than the Voice of the Arizona Wildcats, Brian Jeffries! Brian on the headset for Arizona Football, Basketball and Baseball is like the best parts of a spectacular sunset over Tucson: the magical colors, warmth and comfort that sometimes leave you breathless!
(Editor's note: I contend that Mitch is actually the king of the breathless call.)
AZDS: It feels like NAU's football season ended too early, so I'm going to include a throwback question. I posited back in early November that NAU was the best team in Arizona, making Arizona the best team in Arizona. It was tongue-in-cheek, but some of it had the air of truth. Let's offend the fandom of all three universities in one fell swoop. You're the head coach for a 4th school in Arizona, and you can recruit one of Anu Solomon, Case Cookus, or Mike Berkovici as your quarterback. Who's your guy?
Mitch: I'm recruiting NAU's freshman quarterback Case Cookus, hands down and without hesitation. A simple and basic statistical comparison of the three quarterbacks is all you need. But if you look deeper at diversity of skill sets, raw talent and growth potential, it's a no brainer! Case was a greyshirt freshman, who didn't take part in Spring practices and has only one year of high school quarterback experience (that's 1 year as in 365 days, as in not two or more years, as in ONE year!). Despite that lack of experience, Case put up historic numbers this past season (such as the all time FCS/1-AA mark for touchdown passes by a freshman). He finished 5th in the nationwide balloting for national FCS Offensive Player of the Year, he won the FCS Freshman of the Year voting going away, and he had coaches in the Big Sky Conference who have both played and coached at the FBS level say Case is among the best quarterbacks they've ever seen with such little experience. The best part perhaps about Case Cookus, he's still learning and will only get better!
AZDS: Give us your predictions for how this one turns out in McKale Center. Is Arizona on upset alert?
Mitch: It would be intellectually dishonest for me to even suggest Wildcat fans need to be on upset alert Wednesday night against NAU. Then again, the same was true last December when a 25-point underdog New Jersey Institute of Technology team traveled from the Garden State to the Crisler Center in Ann Arbor and upset the then 16th-ranked Michigan Wolverines. That same NJIT team would lose to the NAU Lumberjacks in the Semifinals of the CIT in March.
Thanks again to Mitch Strohman for taking the time to talk with us. Follow Mitch on Twitter at @mitchstrohman, check out his past radio calls on his Chirbit account, and follow all things NAU Lumberjacks on their website.