OGDEN — Damian Lillard is undeniably one of the greatest players in the history of Weber State or Big Sky Conference basketball.
And this year the Wildcats enjoyed one of the best seasons, at least record-wise — 25-7, their best finish since 2003 — in the history of their proud program, which has won 20 or more games 25 times over the last 50 years.
And yet, with all of Lillard's tremendous accomplishments and as good as this season was, it still turned out to be a bit of a disappointment. Yep, in the end, it fell short of what the Wildcats were shooting for and what their fans were hoping for.
Sure, 25 victories is a terrific season in anybody's book, but missing out on the NCAA Tournament and being relegated to the Collegeinsider.com Tournament — the bottom tier of postseason tourneys — is certainly not what the Weebcats and their fans had in mind this year.
But WSU head coach Randy Rahe remained upbeat as he reflected on the Wildcats' 2011-12 campaign after it ended last Sunday with an overtime loss at Loyola Marymount in the second round of the CIT event.
"It is a great year, and we're gonna look back on it in a couple of weeks when we get recruiting put to bed and have a chance to relax a little bit," Rahe told Carl Arky, the "Voice of the Wildcats," on their postgame radio show on KZNS 1280 AM "The Zone" a week ago. "I'm really proud of these kids, they did some special things. I mean, 25 wins is a lot of wins (sixth-best in the history of the program).
"These kids can walk away with their heads high. Obviously, we wish we would've done some other things — we wanted the ultimate, we didn't get it — but how these kids responded to that tells you what they're all about. They did an outstanding job and they're as fun a group of kids as I've ever been around in 22 years of coaching. They're gonna look back and know that they had one heck of a season.
"We're gonna get there, it's gonna happen," Rahe said of reaching the NCAA Tournament, something the Wildcats haven't done since his first season at the WSU helm in 2007. Since then, they've lost in the conference championship game twice and in the Big Sky tourney semifinals three other times. "We'll get there and we're not gonna quit working until it does happen."
Of the Wildcats' seven losses this season, five of them came to teams that made it to March Madness — BYU, St. Mary's, California and Montana (twice). Their other two losses were to Loyola Marymount in the CIT and an inexplicable setback at Idaho State — which likely cost the 'Cats the right to host the Big Sky Tournament.
And, since Weber State was undefeated at home with a school-record 16-0 mark in the Dee Events Center this season, it's not too much of a stretch to say that being unable to host the Big Sky playoffs on their home court conceivably cost the 'Cats their chance to subsequently earn an invitation to the NCAA's Big Dance.
Weber State's season was marred by serious injuries to two starters, senior forward Kyle Bullinger and junior forward Frank Otis, along with freshman backup center James Hajek.
Bullinger missed nine games after dislocating his elbow in a nasty fall on a rebound in early December, and although he tried valiantly to tough it out, he was never quite the same when he returned. Otis injured his knee in the Wildcats' loss at BYU and wound up missing 18 of the team's next 20 games. Hajek hurt his knee 15 games into the season and was unable to return.
The 6-foot-6 Bullinger and 6-8 forward Darin Mahoney were the only two seniors on this year's Weber State squad, and they both provided valuable leadership for the Wildcats during their collegiate careers.
"Bull" wound up his WSU career with 151 3-pointers (ranking sixth all-time at the school), 577 rebounds (13th all-time) and 1,042 points (23rd all-time). Mahoney, a former Wasatch High School standout, set a school and Big Sky record by playing in 123 career games for the Wildcats — more than any player in league history. The Heber City native ranks second in WSU history in career blocked shots with 100 and 14th in career rebounds with 570.
In guard Scott Bamforth, center Kyle Tresnak, guards Gelaun Wheelwright and Jordan Richardson and forward Byron Fulton, along with Otis and Hajek, the Wildcats — who led the nation in free throw shooting this season with a Big Sky-record 81.4 percent — will have a solid nucleus returning next season.
One other guy who likely won't be back, however, even though he has another year of eligibility remaining, is Lillard. The 6-3 junior point guard, who ranked second in the nation in scoring this season with 24.5 points per game, is expected to enter his name in the NBA Draft and is projected as a first-round choice.
"He's got a chance to be a first-round pick," Rahe said. "All I care about is his future and somebody taking care of him. If he ends up leaving early and going to the NBA, I'll be as proud of him as anybody I've ever been around. If he decides to come back, well, I don't care about us, I just want what's best for him. And whatever's best for him, we're a hundred percent behind him and we're gonna help him.
"Whatever is best for his future as far as playing basketball, that's what he needs to do. ... Anything good that happens to him, he's earned it as much as anybody I've been around in 22 years.
"He's really what we want our program to be about, just like Darin and Kyle," the Wildcats' coach said. "They're all poster-boys for what we want our program to be about — really unbelievably high character, great teammates, unselfish, believe in the culture of our program — and they have helped develop the culture of our program. This is as good a group of kids you can find anywhere and I couldn't be prouder of them. I'm really proud of 'em all."
Lillard, who was named the Big Sky MVP for the second time in his career and was also selected as the District VIII Player of the Year, was named to the 2012 All-America third team by the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC). He is the first-ever Weber State or Big Sky player to be selected to the 15-man NABC squad.
Lillard was also named to the Lute Olson All-America Team and the Lou Henson Mid-Major All-America Team, and he is a finalist for three prestigious annual honors — the John Wooden, Oscar Robertson and Bob Cousy awards.
"We faced a lot of adversity this season, and I'm just happy we were able to come out of it with 25 wins this season," Lillard said following the Wildcats' season-ending loss. "It just tells you what type of team we have — a lot of guys that are ready to step in when they need to and guys that accept their roles. ... I think that's one of the main reasons we were able to win 25 games.
"We came to work every day, and it just paid off for us. ... It'll be tough for awhile because I wanted to keep playing. As time goes by, I think I'll appreciate it more.
"Everybody has asked me what I'm going to do, and I haven't made a decision yet," Lillard told Arky regarding his NBA future. "... It's definitely a good position to be in."
Selfishly, Weber State fans would love to see Lillard come back for his senior season. But realistically, he's got to do what's best for him and his family, and that would be to leave school early for the riches of the NBA.
Lillard must learn from the example of Harold Arceneaux, another former Weber State star who torched North Carolina in the Wildcats' stunning NCAA Tournament win in 1999, nearly did the same against Florida in the second round, and likely could've left for the NBA after his junior year.
But "The Show" decided to come back for his senior season, and when the Wildcats fell far short of expectations, Arceneaux fell off the NBA's radar. While his WSU teammate, point guard Eddie Gill, wound up getting an opportunity to play sporadically in the NBA, seeing action with six different teams over the years, Arceneaux has toiled in relative obscurity in various American minor leagues — including the Utah Snowbears of the American Basketball Association and the Utah Eagles of the Continental Basketball Association — and for several pro teams in foreign countries such as Australia, France, Portugal, the Philippines, Venezuela and Mexico.
Arceneaux has become the cautionary tale of someone who seemingly does the right thing — staying in school — only to see it wind up biting them in the backside.
Here's hoping Lillard won't suffer the same frustrating fate and will instead get his glorious opportunity to flourish in the NBA — where a team like the Utah Jazz could certainly use a young player with his incredible all-around talents.
The Great Dame
Weber State junior guard Damian Lillard's list of season and career accomplishments, and where he ranks in the school and Big Sky record books:
Category WSU Big Sky
Career points scored (1,934) 2nd 5th
Season scoring average (24.5) 1st 7th
Single-season points scored (784) 1st 3rd
Single-game points scored (41) 2nd -----
Season free throw percentage (88.7) 3rd 14th
Season free throws made (228) 1st 1st
Season 3-pointers made (94) 1st 6th
Career 3-pointers made (246) 1st 5th
Career free throws made (520 1st -----
Career assists (362) 2nd 22nd
Career free throw percentage (86.7) 1st 6th
Honors: NABC third team All-American; two-time Big Sky Conference MVP; District VIII Player of the Year; Lute Olson All-America team; Lou Henson Mid-Major All-America team; finalist for the annual John Wooden, Oscar Robertson and Bob Cousy awards; Big Sky Player of the Week (5 times this year); National Player of the Week in January. Heady goes here
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