No matter what happens the rest of the season. No matter if Weber State College basketball eventually fades into oblivion in whatever remote outpost of civilization they play the Big Sky Conference postseason tournament in this year. Despite a loss to Boise State on Friday night, the fact still remains: The Wildcats had a bigger turnaround this season than Afghanistan.
This is the team that went 9-21 a year ago and finished eighth in the Big Sky Conference. This is the team that lost 12 straight games on the road. This is the team the NCAA was considering investigating for not cheating.The coach, Larry Farmer, was fired, replaced by a 47-year-old aspiring major college head coach named Denny Huston, who took the job even though he was faced with a new coach's dilemma of dilemmas:
Virtually everybody was coming back.
Getting everybody back from a 9-21 team is like inheriting the crew of The Bounty. Your first order of business is hiring a psychologist. For yourself. And when you inherit a team that lost every Big Sky Conference road game except one at Reno to close out the previous season, well, it's asking a lot of those players just to go back to Bozeman and Missoula and Flagstaff and beautiful downtown Moscow, Idaho - let alone suit up.
The natural tendency was to assume that Denny Huston took the Weber job only with the provision of a long-term contract.
This year would be a wash.
But here it is the middle of February, and already the Wildcats have 15 wins, with no less than eight of those wins coming in the Big Sky, and, get this, FOUR of them coming on the Big Sky road. The latest two came last week, over Montana State in Bozeman and Montana in Missoula. After the win in Missoula, over a 16-8 Montana team that was a preseason Big Sky favorite, the Wildcat players, amid an otherwise silent gym, whooped and hollered and did cartwheels all the way to the locker room, like cowboys at the end of a trail drive.
This was in sharp contrast to the way the Wildcat players reacted to their first road win of the season, in Cedar City last Nov. 28 over Southern Utah State.
They were just sitting in the
locker room after the game, looking rather glum, not saying much, when the new coach walked in the room.
He looked at them in shock.
"Hey!" Huston shouted.
"You guys just won a game on the road!"
The message was, flaunt it when you've got it. Especially if you got it on the road.
When Huston was an assistant coach for what seemed like forever, at Wyoming and Stanford mainly, he developed the above philosophy. He decided that when, or if, he ever inherited a team, that would be one of his main head coach priorities: To instill pride on the road.
"The biggest lesson basketball teaches," he says, "is how to handle adversity. Nothing else in education really does that. But basketball does. Handling adversity is what it's all about. So we have to lend strength to each other, especially on the road, where everybody and everything is against you. We have to take pride in handling that adversity."
"Obviously, the guy knows what he's doing," says Moochie Cobb, Weber's outstanding senior point guard. "He's taught us how to win."
Another of Huston's head coach game plan was to instigate simplicity on both offense and defense, with an offensive approach that reacts to what the defense is taking away, and a defensive approach that can be described in one word: Aggression.
"Even referees are human," he says, "At least some of them are. And they tend to call reactions rather than actions."
Armed with the above platform, Huston has proceeded to mold the Mildcats of a year ago into the Wildcats of today.
He also, with all due respect, suggests that his players are a year older.
"Last year, the old staff had five new junior college guys who were among the top seven," he says. "This year we got five of those players, and they're a lot more mature and ready for major college basketball."
Somewhere, Larry Farmer can take some solace in that. As for the 1988-89 Wildcats, they're a virtual cinch now to qualify for the six-team Big Sky postseason NCAA-qualifying tournament at the end of the season. It appears Idaho, by virtue of a regular season title, will host that tournament in Moscow - one of the nastiest, mangiest, dirty-dog basketball towns ever to mistreat a visitor.
The Wildcats won't be favored to get out of town alive. But, then, they weren't favored to get into town alive, either.