I don't think it'll make or break our season. That's just my opinion. But it is a challenge … and we like challenges. —Damian Lillard
Weber State has one huge, all-or-nothing game remaining on its Big Sky Conference men's basketball regular-season schedule.
And this isn't it.
But if the Wildcats don't take care of business Thursday night at Northern Colorado, then next week's showdown with league title co-contender Montana might not matter nearly as much.
It's already assured that this year's Big Sky postseason championship tournament will be played in either Ogden or Missoula, Mont. The next few days will determine which school gets to have home-court advantage for the chance to earn an NCAA Tournament berth.
Right now, the Grizzlies (12-1) are a half-game behind WSU (13-1) in the conference standings. But with two home games this week, Montana is expected to move into next Tuesday's clash with the 'Cats with a 14-1 league mark — the same record Weber State will have if it beats the Bears tonight in Greeley, Colo.
Sure, so maybe the schedule-makers didn't do Weber State any favors. But the Wildcats, who have won six straight and 16 of their last 17 games, are primed for what awaits and won't allow what happens in the days ahead diminish what has already been such an outstanding campaign.
"I don't think it'll make or break our season," said junior guard Damian Lillard, who's now the second-leading scorer in Division I basketball with an average of 24.5 points per game. "That's just my opinion. But it is a challenge … and we like challenges.
"A lot of people probably don't think we'll be able to go on the road and win two. But everything depends on these last two games, especially if we're able to win the game in Northern Colorado, then everything will be on the line against Montana. And I don't think anybody in our program would rather have it any other way."
Oakland University's Reggie Hamilton, averaging 25.1 ppg, moved ahead of Lillard last weekend after the Weber State star had led the nation in scoring since November.
The Wildcats come into Thursday night's contest fresh from a 72-70 victory over Texas Arlington in an NCAA BracketBuster battle last Saturday. That win snapped the Texas team's 16-game winning streak, and WSU coach Randy Rahe is hoping it'll help prepare his team for the pressure situations that are sure to come from here on out.
"Every game from here on out is gonna be like this," Rahe said after his ballclub's BracketBuster win. "That's just the way it's gonna be. There's a lot riding on it.
"I think it'll help us, just from the mindset you've got to have to have success down the stretch or to try to have success," said Rahe, whose team's 22 wins this season marks the most he's had in his six seasons at the Weber State helm. "… This game helped us from the standpoint it was an intense game, and I think it'll help us down the stretch. I hope it will."
Tonight against defending league champion Northern Colorado, the Wildcats will face a team that's struggling desperately just to get into this year's Big Sky playoffs. The Bears are one of five teams battling to grab one of three remaining spots that are up for grabs in the postseason tourney.
Weber State managed to beat the Bears 93-81 in their first meeting back on Feb. 4 in Ogden, as Lillard scored 35 in the win. But despite its losing record, Northern Colorado is a dangerous team that leads the nation in 3-point field goal percentage (45.4) — the only team in the country that's shooting more than 42 percent from behind the arc. The Bears are also one of the Big Sky's best rebounding teams, but they rank last in scoring defense, allowing 75 points per game, and they turn the ball over more than any other Big Sky squad.
Freshman Tevin Svihovec, their leading scorer at 10.9 points per game, poured in 34 in a win over Cal Poly last Saturday.
"We know every game is so important down the stretch and we will have our hands full," Rahe said. "Northern Colorado is a very dangerous team and can really shoot the ball.
"We are playing with a lot of confidence right now, but we have to be ready to play every night."
WILDCATS ON THE AIR
Weber State (22-4, 13-1)
at Northern Colorado (9-17, 5-9)
Today, 7:05 p.m. MST
Butler Hancock Sports Pavilion, Greeley, Colo.
TV: none Radio: 1280 AM