I think everyone gets excited for the conference tournament. No matter what kind of season you’ve had, everyone is 0-0 and it’s a fresh start. —Weber State head coach Randy Rahe
As the Weber State Wildcats hit the Reno Events Center floor Thursday for their first game of the Big-Sky Tournament, they do so against what coach Randy Rahe calls the deepest field he’s ever seen.
Montana (16-2, 23-7) won the Big Sky regular-season crown but the Grizzlies suffered back-to-back February road losses to Idaho and Eastern Washington. Idaho, (14-4, 22-8) won nine-of-ten conference games to propel the Vandals to the No. 2 seed. Eastern Washington (13-5, 18-13) behind back-to-back Big Sky Player of the Year, Bogdan Bliznyuk, won five straight down the stretch to earn the No. 3 seed.
Weber State (13-5, 20-10) earned the No. 4 seed and meets No. 5 seed Northern Colorado (11-7, 21-11) in Thursday’s quarterfinals. The Wildcats won both matchups this season, 78-74 in Greeley and 71-66 in overtime on Feb. 10 in Ogden. The Bears advanced to Thursday’s quarterfinal with an 82-59 first-round thumping of Northern Arizona.
Rahe expects another white-knuckler when the teams tip Thursday afternoon in Reno.
“They are good, very talented and have the best guard in the league (Andre Spight 21.8 ppg),” Rahe said. “They played really well down the stretch. It's going to be a tough game and it’s always tough to beat a team three times.”
From Jan. 18 to Feb. 17, Rahe’s Wildcats ran off nine straight conference wins. Weber State finished the conference’s regular season winning just one of four, but the losses came to Montana, Idaho and Eastern Washington, the three teams seeded in front of them for the 2018 conference tournament.
“Montana is obviously the best team, but they are still vulnerable,” Rahe said. “Idaho is right there but they also have shown vulnerability.”
Rahe added the parity in the league has made for an exciting season but notes the depth and quality of the field sets up one of the best Big Sky conference tournaments in history.
While the Wildcats aren’t as deep as they have been in the past they still have plenty of firepower heading into the tournament.
First-team Big Sky performer Jerrick Harding led the conference in scoring (22.1 ppg). Harding, a sophomore, erupted for a career-high 46 in the Wildcat’s regular season ending, 95-92 overtime win at Montana State.
The Wildcats have two Big Sky third-teamers.
- Senior Ryan Richardson – (14.1 ppg, led the team in 3-pointers made with 91)
- Junior Zach Braxton – (12.3 ppg, 7.8 rpg)
“They have been terrific,” Rahe said of his seniors. “The best thing they’ve done is providing a calming influence and confidence and a feeling of no matter what happens let’s keep moving forward.”
Former Roy High standout Brekkott Chapman has shown his versatility throughout conference play scoring in double-figures (10.5), averaging 5.7 rebounds per game and leading the team in blocked shots (40).
Throughout the season Rahe has talked about his team being the youngest in the league and having a smaller margin of error than normal. He’s hoping some early tournament momentum can infuse some confidence into a team with a seven-man rotation.
“When you get into tournament play if you can have success and win a game, it kind of builds momentum and the adrenaline kicks in and you’re not as tired,” Rahe said.
After falling to North Dakota in the Big Sky title game in 2017, the Wildcats will be looking to punch the school’s 17th trip to the NCAA tournament.
“I think everyone gets excited for the conference tournament. No matter what kind of season you’ve had, everyone is 0-0 and it’s a fresh start,” Rahe said. “The whole atmosphere is fun, the games are fun and you hope your team plays well because if you aren’t on top of your game you are going to get beat.”
Southern Utah upsets Idaho State to advance to Big Sky quarterfinals
While the Southern Utah Thunderbirds struggled through the Big Sky regular season, Todd Simon’s crew provided an upset during Tuesday’s first-round games at the Reno Events Center.
The No. 10 seeded T-Birds, (12-18) defeated No. 7 seed Idaho State (14-16) 76-68. Brandon Better led the team in scoring with 18 points but three other players, Jadon Cohee (15), Dwayne Morgan (11) and Jamal Aytes (10) reached double figures.
The win advances Southern Utah to Thursday’s quarterfinals where they will meet No. 2 seed Idaho (22-8)
Former Wasatch Academy prep Geno Luzcando wrapped up a terrific career for the Bengals with 21 points. Luzcando, the 6-foot-3 senior from Santiago, Chile, became the all-time steals leader for Idaho State and finished No. 5 in Big Sky history with 217 career steals.
Notes: Eastern Washington senior, Bogdan Bliznyuk enters the conference tournament as the Big Sky’s third-leading all-time scorer. The senior from Ukraine has 2060 points and needs 43 to break the 24-year old conference record of 2102 established by Idaho’s Orlando Lightfoot in 1994.