OGDEN — Surprises are good, but guarantees?
They’re so much better.
Since there’s no such thing as a surprise NCAA tournament invitation for the Big Sky Conference, Weber State went ahead and claimed the guaranteed berth on Saturday. Coach Randy Rahe doesn’t have to defend his record in big games any more. For the first time since his rookie season, in 2007, his team is back in the tournament.
“It’s about time,” Rahe said after the 88-67 win. “I’ve got to say, it’s about time.”
So chalk up Weber’s 15th invitation to a team that didn’t know when to say when. It didn’t fold during a bad stretch when it lost back-to-back games in February. Nor did it mope in the early season when it lost five of its first seven games. Same on Friday, when it let Northern Colorado back at the end of regulation but rallied in overtime.
“You look back at early December, we weren’t a very good basketball team,” Rahe said.
By Saturday the narrative had changed.
“We were pretty much hitting on all cylinders,” he said.
When the game ended, fans flooded the court as the team slowly cut down the nets. Former Wildcat guard Damian Lillard hugged players, enjoying the moment — one he never experienced in college.
Lillard texed Rahe before Friday’s semifinal to say he was attending Saturday’s game.
“I said guess we better win, huh?” responded Rahe.
“You have no choice,” Lillard replied. “I have the plane ready. It’ll cost me a lot of money.”
That’s nothing to dismiss.
“If you know Dame, as tight as he is ... ” Rahe said. "Last summer he’s in my office — he’s making how many millions? — and he takes a pizza coupon.”
In Weber’s case, there never seemed to be postseason guarantees. After Rahe’s first year, they were always ticketed for some sort of low-budget March: NIT, CBI, CIT. Do letters really matter if there aren’t four of them?
While the NCAA tourney isn’t new territory for the Wildcat program, Rahe hasn’t exactly built a summer home outside the selection committee’s hotel. But a brilliant start led to an ebullient finish on Saturday. If there were worries about the Wildcats having a hangover from their taxing overtime game on Friday, they were dispelled at the onset. Weber made its first six shots, missed one, then made four.
By halftime the ‘Cats had cooled to 58 percent, but nobody complained. Certainly not Davion Berry, whose 3-point basket at the buzzer put the Wildcats up by 10.
“I’m not the smartest guy in the world, you know, try run a play that probably won’t work,” Rahe said. “Easiest thing is get it to one of your horses and have him make a play.”
Rahe had won four regular-season conference titles but only one NCAA bid until now. Before Saturday, Weber had lost its last three title-game appearances.
If you ask colleagues and players, they’ll almost unanimously say he’s a fine coach. He is now shooting for his sixth 20-win season (19-11) in eight years. That’s no small task. Weber isn’t the flashiest place to recruit.
It’s surprising Weber has been able to keep Rahe. With an average of 21 wins a season, going into this year, he’s been as reliable as rising cable rates. He has won or finished second in the regular season in six of eight years.
At the same time, he had become a first-rate coach playing in second-rate tournaments.
After winning the conference tourney his first year, his team lost in Ogden the next three. It also lost tourney games at Greeley, Colo., once and at Montana the next two years.
In some ways, expectations aren’t big at Weber. Attendance in the regular season is usually low. Yet the Wildcats have a good enough NCAA profile that almost nobody calls it Webber State anymore. The school’s 14 prior NCAA appearances are the same as New Mexico, Florida State and Wyoming, and more than Oregon, Arizona State, San Diego State and Nebraska.
It’s true the Big Sky isn’t the biggest, baddest basketball conference around. But the Wildcats didn’t get all those NCAA bids by wishing.
By the time Saturday’s game ended, Rahe’s good name had been added to the list of multi-bid NCAA tournament coaches such as Phil Johnson, Ron Abegglen and Neil McCarthy.
“All I do know is whoever we’re going to play, we’re going to be ready to play,” Rahe said. “We’re not just going to show up and let somebody just beat us up. We’re going to play.”
Nobody in the building was willing to disagree.
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