When coach Ben Howland arrived in Flagstaff three years ago after 11 seasons as Jerry Pimm's assistant at UC Santa Barbara, Northern Arizona, which hadn't had a winning record since 1985-86, was, he says, "a disaster." The Lumberjacks had only a few decent players, and one of them, Brad Snyder, the son of former Phoenix Suns guard Dick Snyder, died in a car accident on the way home from school only three months after Howland took over. Those that remained didn't get along. "We had terrible chemistry," recalls sophomore center Casey Frank. "Every day I dreaded going to practice and going to games."
After a 14-38 record in his first two seasons, Howland decided that success in Flagstaff—a town of about 50,000 located 7,000 feet up in the San Francisco Peaks and populated by an odd mix of environmentalists, truckers, Native Americans and wealthy retirees—required a different kind of player than he had. "My first couple of years we had kids from metropolitan areas," says Howland. "They thought the Flagstaff area was too slow. Some thought it was too cold. I didn't want to hear that."
So last year Howland looked for smalltown kids who would appreciate the opportunity to play in Division I. As a result, this year's starting lineup includes freshman Ross Land from Chico, Calif. (whose 50% three-point shooting through Feb. 14 was 12th in the nation); freshman forward Billy Hix from Loveland, Colo.; and junior college transfer Andrew Mavis, who almost stayed home in his native Richmond, B.C., after he looked in the Northern Arizona media guide and noted the Lumberjacks' dismal record and paltry attendance. "I said, 'No way am I going there,' " says Mavis, a junior forward. "But after talking to Coach Howland, I realized it would be great to go to a place that was a real challenge to turn around."
With their win over Eastern Washington on Saturday, the Lumberjacks clinched the Big Sky title, which gives them the right to host the conference tournament. If they can win that, the Lumberjacks will be rewarded with their first NCAA berth. "That would mean the world," says Frank. "Last year that seemed so far away, and now it is so close. It's just a few steps away."