OGDEN — A year ago, the expectations for the Weber State basketball team were understandably low.

This time, there will be no sneaking up on Big Sky opponents as the Wildcats are the defending champions rather than returning as a last-place squad with a new coach and a load of new players.

"We've got the bull's-eye on us a little bit now," second-year coach Randy Rahe said. "Winning kind of raises the expectations a bit, doesn't it? But that's what we want. We want people to expect us to be a program that's going to win some games."

The Wildcats opened practices last week without a lot of fanfare but with the bar raised considerably from where it was just 12 months ago. Finishing 20-12 and 11-5 in the Big Sky, the 'Cats went from worst to first and earned a berth in the NCAA Tournament, losing to UCLA in the first round.

If they are to return to the Big Dance, the 2008 version of the Weber State hoops squad will have to do it without its unquestioned heart and soul — David Patten.

Patten was named the Big Sky MVP despite having good, but not spectacular, statistics. What made him the MVP was his heart and leadership.

Finding someone to step into that role will undoubtedly be one of Rahe's top priorities.

The top candidates to assume the captain duties are guards Dezmon Harris and Brody Van Brocklin. The seniors played big parts in WSU's success last year with Harris, in particular, showing the ability to put the team on his shoulders and take off with it.

"I'm concerned about (finding a leader) as much as anything," Rahe said. "I hope we can do it as a group, but I think most teams naturally have one or two guys step up and take that role."

Harris averaged 10.8 points per game last year and is joined by junior Juan Pablo Silveira (11.1) as the only returning player to average double figure scoring. Senior post players Arturas Valeika (8.0 ppg, 6.5 rpg) and Tyler Billings (7.9, 2.7) also return and will be counted on to take some of the interior work Patten was so good at.

Valeika, Harris and Silveira were starters last year, while Van Brocklin had seven starts and was often the first player off the bench.

The Wildcats have a few returning role players that may develop into go-to-guys. Junior forward Daviin Davis is a high-flier and sophomore Steve Panos showed all sorts of potential as a true freshman on the low blocks and Rahe said WSU fans will be surprised at how much he's developed in one off-season.

Rahe brought in a bunch of newcomers to help WSU carry on as well.

Though some may redshirt, junior college transfer Kellen McCoy will provide a scoring punch as a speedy point guard. But at 5-foot-6, his defensive capabilities may create problems. Freshmen forwards Kyle Bullinger, Darin Mahoney (Wasatch High) and Trevor Morris may provide depth on the post but also might end up redshirting.

Weber State got an early start to their preparations with a trip to Canada where they won three of four games in September.

In addition to the normal slate of challenging in-state games — WSU opens the season hosting Utah State on Nov. 10 — the Wildcats hit the road to play Illinois, New Mexico and probably UCLA in a preseason tournament.

4 questions for Wildcats

• Who will Randy Rahe get to step into the enormous leadership shoes vacated by David Patten?

• Will the Wildcats have one primary point guard or employ a committee with Dezmon Harris, Brody Van Brocklin and Juan Pablo Silveria again?

• Seniors Arturas Valeika and Tyler Billings are proven in the post. Who is going to join them down low?

• With a brutal non-conference schedule, can the Wildcats stay strong enough to repeat in the Big Sky?

College hoops previews

The Deseret Morning News will preview local college basketball teams, which begin practice this weekend for the 2007-08 season:

Oct. 11: Utah

Oct. 12: Utah State

Oct. 13: BYU

Today: Weber State

Tuesday: UVSC

Wednesday: Southern Utah

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