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Northern Arizona Lumberjacks

Updated Nov 27, 2012 - 2:32 pm

NAU's Murphy ready to lead a program, face Arizona Wildcats

Northern Arizona head coach Jack Murphy instructs his team during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against UNLV on Monday, Nov. 12, 2012, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Isaac Brekken)

First-year Northern Arizona University men's basketball coach Jack Murphy didn't always know he wanted to lead a program.

Then again, he did know he wanted to coach in some capacity -- something he learned while serving under Josh Pastner at the University of Memphis.

"I think that after spending the last few years in Memphis and seeing how he adjusted and ran his own program, it made me want to have my own program more and more," Murphy told's Bearing Down with Adam and Jarrett. "So it's something that's kind of developed in terms of my desire to be a head coach, but coaching and the game of basketball is something I've known I wanted to do for a long, long time."

Murphy, 33, worked with Lute Olson in Arizona from 1998-2006, George Karl in Denver from 2006-2009, and Pastner 2009-2012. He said he learned from each of his stops along the coaching trail, and by the time the Northern Arizona job opened up, he knew he was ready to move up the do

"It was a job that I pursued," he said. "It opened up last December and we were in the thick of our season there at Memphis but I was keeping an eye on things, always with my first attention being Memphis."

Murphy said he kept his finger on the pulse of the school's search process, and with some help from "many other people, Josh Pastner included," learned what he needed to do to put his name in the hat.

"Once I was able to secure an interview the rest is, I guess as they say, history."

So Murphy got the job, and is now tasked with turning around a team that went just 5-24 last season with one conference win. NAU has experienced success before -- especially when Ben Howland was pacing the sidelines in the late 90s -- but had fallen on hard times that ultimately led to the resignation of Mike Adras early last season.

The new coach said he has no reservations about taking the job, but has since learned it's a better situation than he realized.

"I knew it had a great campus and a great community up here, it was beautiful," he said. "What I didn't realize is all the improvements that they've made on campus and the improvements they've started to make with the athletic department.

"As good as of a job as I thought it was to start with, it turned out to be a better job."

Of course, that's easy to say now, as Murphy is in the honeymoon phase of a job that could prove to be fairly challenging. Flagstaff is not a bad place to go to college, but as a first-time head coach in a state with a pair of Pac-12 basketball programs, recruiting elite talent could be a challenge.

Murphy does not see it as so much of an issue, though, saying the trick is simply getting kids on the NAU campus.

"Once we get them on campus they're really surprised by how nice it is and how wonderful it is," he said. "Every kid we've had on campus is like, ‘Coach, this is a lot better than I thought it would be.'"

One of the younger coaches in the nation, Murphy said he and his staff recruit the Valley hard and try to convince as many as possible to drive up north during the summer to check out the campus to get them interested, and from there the stage is set to bring them back for more visits and hopefully a commitment.

"NAU kind of recruits itself once you get kids up here," he said.

One of the Murphy's top recruits is freshman guard Dewayne Russell, an Arizona High School Player of the Year from Peoria who is averaging 15.8 points per game this season. At 5-foot-11 and 155 pounds he is not one of the bigger players on the court, but has made a great impact in his first year.

"He's just played beyond his years," Murphy said. "He takes care of the basketball; he's somebody that I trust at any point in the game with the ball in his hands; and he's not only a good scorer, but he's a very good distributor."

Murphy and the Lumberjacks will look to Russell and senior guard Gabe Rogers to have big games Wednesday in Tucson against the ninth-ranked Wildcats, which is a place the Lumberjacks nearly pulled off an upset just two years ago.

This will be Murphy's first time coaching against Arizona in Tucson, and second time overall. He was with Memphis two years ago when the Wildcats knocked the Tigers out of the NCAA Tournament, and said it's been a while since he even stepped foot in the McKale Center.

"Once we get down there and once the ball is tipped it's just going to be like any other game," he said. "I think it was strange with Josh and I when we played Arizona a couple years ago in the Tournament when we were at Memphis; I don't know how strange it will be for me on Wednesday."

It will also be, as Murphy indicated, a great challenge.

"They're absolutely loaded," he said of the Wildcats. "They've done a great job recruiting and then also coaching up the players they already had in the program.

"You just look one through nine or 10 or 11, they have talent across the board. For our guys it's important that we play NAU basketball, we execute on our end offensively, and we do a good job defensively finishing plays, finishing possessions."

Following Wednesday night's tilt the Lumberjacks will return to Flagstaff and play at home for the first time when they host Sam Houston State Saturday after six straight road games to begin the season. It's been a tough stretch so far, as NAU is just 2-3, but Murphy believes it will pay off down the road.

"We'll be able to come back home this Saturday after U of A and have our heads held high and know that we have a lot of home games remaining on our schedule where we can kind of get on a roll," he said. "It's been a good experience for our guys, and we're just looking forward to getting back home and regrouping once it's all over with."


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