Brian Nicholson, Deseret News
OGDEN — Most college basketball coaches would be downright delighted with a 30-win season and a deep postseason tournament run.
But even though his Weber State men's basketball team piled up an all-time school and Big Sky Conference record 30 single-season victories and nearly won the Collegeinsider.com Tournament title — becoming the first Big Sky school in history to ever reach the finals of a national postseason tournament — Wildcats coach Randy Rahe was still far from satisfied.
After all, with all his outstanding success in his first seven seasons at WSU — 150 victories, including five 20-win seasons, six postseason appearances and three Big Sky Coach of the Year awards — and despite the stellar presence of Damian Lillard, who went on to win NBA Rookie of the Year honors last season, Rahe has been unable to get the Wildcats into the NCAA tournament since his first season at the helm.
And it bothers him a great deal.
"It gnaws at me a lot, I've got to be honest with you," Rahe said earlier this week as he prepared to begin his eighth year as the Wildcats' coach with tonight's game against in-state rival BYU. "It puts a pit in my stomach. But all you can do is move on to the next year and try to get it done.
"We've won (regular-season) championships without going to the NCAA Tournament. Like they say, I want it all, and you haven't got it all. And it bothers me and it motivates us and we want to try and get there the next year. You just try to do the best you can and you hope. And I do think that if you keep doing things the right way with good kids and building your program step by step that eventually you'll get over the hump.
"Somebody said, 'Are you guys over the hump?' Well, we won 30 games, so I don't think it's the hump," Rahe said. "We came two points short last year of getting there (in the Big Sky tourney title game), and then we had two years with major injuries when I think we had the best team in the league but injuries kept us from getting that."
For the fifth time in six years, the Big Sky preseason polls again predict that the Wildcats, who finished 30-7 last season, will win the conference championship, something coach Rahe flatly stated "we haven't even talked about."
So, is this year's team — which features four seniors and eight freshmen on its roster — strong enough to get past perennial nemesis Montana, finally break through and earn an invitation to the Big Dance next March?
"Potentially, I think so," Rahe said. "I thought last year's team was potentially good enough, too, and we were right there. We just couldn't win at Montana. We've just got to move forward and try to put ourselves in position to win it. It definitely motivates us.
"Every team is different. We don't talk to this year's team about what happened last year. It's not fair to this team because it's a new team. These kids all want to get it done, too, but you can talk about it so much that you can put some heat on them. And there's no reason to do that.
"I tell this team that I just want this team to be as good as this team can be," he said. "Wherever that leads us, it leads us. Let's just try to be as good as we can be."
This year's ball club features three returning starters in 6-foot-4 senior swingman Davion Berry, 6-foot-10 senior center Kyle Tresnak and 6-foot-1 guard Jordan Richardson.
Berry was a first team All-District and All-Big Sky selection last season, when he was also selected as the league's Newcomer of the Year after averaging a team-leading 15.2 points per game, which ranked fifth-best in the Big Sky. He also led the Wildcats in assists and steals last season.
"Offensively, the game comes really easy to him," Rahe said of Berry. "He has a great feel for what's there; he can make plays for others, and he's obviously able to get his own. He has a feel for when to get somebody else a shot and when to get his own shot. He's got a really good awareness and good feel for the game. He's very versatile offensively — he can shoot it, bounce it, make plays for others, he's quick, he's able to go by guys, and he's a good finisher.
"The defensive side of the ball is where he's really got his challenges. He's made strides in that area — now he needs to shore up and give consistent effort defensively."
Tresnak, who averaged 11.8 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.2 blocked shots last season, has impressed Rahe with his continual improvement.
"Every year he's kinda made a nice little jump," the Wildcats' coach said. "He's gotten leaner and lowered his body fat, and he's more mobile now and is able to chase rebounds. Every area of his game has improved just because he can move better."
Richardson, who averaged 7.2 points and 2.8 assists last season, can play either the point or shooting guard position.
The Wildcats' other two likely starters are 6-foot-9 sophomore forward Joel Bolomboy, who averaged 7.0 points, 7.1 rebounds and 1.7 blocks last season as a freshman; and 6-foot-2 guard Jeremy Senglin, a true freshman who hails from Texas.
"Bolomboy's got a chance to be a good player, there's no question," Rahe said. "He has improved his skill level and low-post scoring, and people haven't seen it, but he can really shoot the ball, too."
As for Senglin, coach Rahe feels like this young man is ready to run the team from the point guard position.
"He's got a chance to be a really good player," Rahe said. "He's got a great feel and a high skill level, he's a good athlete, he's the whole package. And he's very confident.
"The biggest thing is learning how to defend at the Division I level. But he's earned it, and his teammates know he's earned it, and he's ready to take over."
Senglin led the team in scoring in its exhibition victory over Adams State last weekend with 17 points.
The team's top reserves will be 6-foot-7 forward Kyndahl Hill, a redshirt freshman from Texas; Royce Williams, a 6-foot-5 junior swingman; and 6-foot-4 freshman guard Richaud Gittens from Tempe, Ariz.
Two veteran big men, 6-foot-7 senior forward Byron Fulton (ankle) and 6-foot-10 junior center James Hajek (knee), have been battling persistent injury problems but are being counted on to contribute if they can get healthy.
The Wildcats' preseason schedule is a tough one, "probably the toughest one I've had since I've been here," Rahe said.
Not only are they opening the campaign tonight against the powerful Cougars at Provo, where Weber State is 0-19 all-time, but they'll also face UCLA, Colorado State, Texas-Arlington and Utah Valley on the road, as well as Utah State, San Jose State and just a pair of cupcakes — those perennial hoops powerhouses Saint Katherine College and Northern New Mexico — at home.
"We really don't talk much about winning and losing and goals and all that kinda stuff," Rahe said. "We never have. We just talk about focusing on the process daily — what have we got to do today, what have we got to do to get better today — and then concentrate on every guy doing their job today.
"Whether it's defensively or offensively, just do your job and then if you get five guys doing their job on that possession defensively, you're going to have a good possession. And offensively, you're going to have a good offensive possession. And then the scoreboard takes care of itself and then all the other stuff down the road takes care of itself. And we really try to focus on that.
"We're obviously a long ways away right now," he said. "I mean, we've got a whole bunch of work to do. We've got a mix of veterans and new guys; that's kind of where our balance is. New guys, obviously, it takes a long time to get really comfortable in our system. The veterans seem to be ahead of our new guys, which is just the way it is.
"And as soon as the new guys catch up, then I think we've got a chance to be a real competitive team. I think we've got some good pieces that we can use. We're just trying to get this team to be the best this team can be. And wherever that takes us, it takes us. We really try not to ever get ahead of ourselves, it's a waste of energy, a waste of time. Focus on a daily basis and do your job, just do your job. If we keep ’em focused on that, then everything else will take care of itself."
And someday soon, hopefully, March Madness will come calling the ’Cats again.
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