FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) The University of Alaska Fairbanks Men's Basketball team was projected to place 10th out of 11 teams in the preseason poll voted by coaches among the Great Northwest Athletic Conference. They also did not have a single player selected to the All-Conference preseason team. Twenty GNAC games later, the Nanooks placed sixth in the league and had a star player dominate the conference awards.
Junior guard Shadeed Shabazz was named the 2019-20 GNAC Player of the Year, becoming the first Nanook since Brad Oleson in 2005 to win the award. The Seattle, Washington-native averaged a conference-high 26.0 points per game, with 20 20-point performances and 11 games with at least 30 points (five straight), including two 43-point outings. His per game average also ranked 5th in all of NCAA Division II and he was the only player in the GNAC to reach 600 and 700 points on the season (729).
In his first year in the GNAC as an Iowa Western transfer, Shabazz was awarded the conference's Newcomer of the Year Award as well. His all-around game landed him in the top 10 in conference in the following categories: Assists (5th, 3.6), Free Throw Percentage (4th, .854), Free Throws Made/Attempted (1st, 169/198), Steals (1st, 3.93), Three-Pointers Made (2.2) and minutes (1st, 34.5).
Naturally, Shabazz was unanimously voted to 1st Team All-GNAC. As great as he was on the offensive side of the ball, Shabazz was just as incredible on defense. With some of the quickest hands in the nation, he collected 110 steals at 3.93 per game, both the most among all NCAA Division I and DII players. His stout defense landed him a share of the Defensive Player of the Year for the GNAC, named Co-DPOY, solidifying one of the best individual seasons from anyone who has ever worn a Nanook uniform.
Shabazz's outstanding play led the Nanooks to a 10-10 GNAC record, which was enough for them to squeeze in as the sixth and final team in the conference's playoffs. The Nanooks drew the No. 3 Western Oregon Wolves in the opening round, a team they split with this year, including a loss in the regular season finale.
"It is really exciting, especially coming into the beginning, we were ranked last in the whole league, so we basically shocked the whole league and it just feels good that our hard work paid off." Shabazz said ahead of the GNAC playoffs.
This year's GNAC tournament is hosted by Seattle Pacific University March 5-7, Shabazz's hometown.
"It is going to add a little boost to me, being back home, playing in front of friends and family...it's an early game but at least I can come into an environment I've played in and I've played in SPU plenty of times, I'm going to feel right at home."
The Nanooks are competing in the GNAC postseason for the first time since the 2015-16 season, when UAF fell to Western Oregon 78-71 in the championship game.
"Well, I think it's a program on the rise," Second-year head coach Greg Sparling said of his team. "We went from two wins last year to 10 wins in the conference. It feels good, I'm proud for the guys, I'm proud for the university, I'm proud for the community."
UAF will tip off against Western Oregon (13-7 GNAC) at 11 a.m. AKST, the same team they faced the last time they were on the court. The Blue and Gold fell 95-89 on Feb. 29, and will look to clean some things up before round three.
"We have to take care of the basketball, we had 19 turnovers on Saturday night, we can't do that," Sparling said. "I am hoping to get everyone to step up and do something a little extra, taking a charge, 50-50 balls, get a hand on a basketball, we have a great opportunity to take it to the next round."
Gandara named Newcomer of the Year
On the women's side, another transfer stepped onto campus and made an immediate impact for the Nanooks. Lassen Community College transfer Jocelyn Gandara was tabbed the GNAC's Newcomer of the Year after her standout season. The 5-9 junior guard led the conference in scoring at 18.5ppg and had the highest point totals of the season with 34 and 33-point outings. She was also the lone GNAC member to crack the 500-point mark, generating 536 on the season. The El Paso, Texas-native hauled in 7.1 rebounds per game, good for fifth in the league. Gandara's breakout season landed her on the GNAC All-Conference second team.