BASKETBALL: 'Cats Back in Familiar Territory at Season's End
(Photo courtesy of Weber State Athletics)
By Joe Traub
The date was March 1, 2018.
That was the last time the Weber State University men’s basketball team played a game in the final week of the regular season meaningful in terms of their chances at winning a Big Sky regular season conference title. Unfortunately for Wildcat fans, the 2018 run ended with a whimper as the team limped down the stretch to a fourth-place finish.
However, that was then and this is now - the Wildcats are back in contention in the closing stretch of the campaign and ready to make more noise this time.
Six months ago, if longtime Weber State head coach Randy Rahe was told his squad would be sitting in third place with a conference record of 11-3 and an overall mark of 16-5 entering March, he likely would have signed up in a heartbeat.
Consider all the circumstances of the 2020-21 college basketball season. No one was even sure if it would start on time until it did on Nov. 25. Then there have been the constant COVID tests, cancellations due to circumstances that are often out of a team’s control, and perhaps the biggest challenge of all - an eerie atmosphere in arenas all over the country with games being played in front of a dramatically reduced capacity, or in many cases, no fans at all.
Rahe and the Wildcats had their share of disappointments in the early going this season but have been on a roll as the temperatures continue to rise with the promise of spring right around the corner. Will Weber State play a game on or after the first day of spring? Time will tell, but things are looking promising for this squad.
After earning two white-knuckle victories at Sacramento State last week, the ‘Cats return to the friendly view of the Dee Events Center to host Northern Colorado on Thursday night for the first of two contests with the Bears to close out the regular season.
WSU will likely need to win both games and get some help from Idaho State (who plays conference leader Eastern Washington) and Portland State (second-place Southern Utah’s final regular season opponent), but the important factor is the Wildcats have already secured a first-round bye in next week’s conference tournament in Boise.
Isiah Brown led the way for Weber State in Sacramento, including converting a game-winning shot with less than two seconds remaining on Saturday. The senior guard leads the team with an average of 18 points per game after transferring from Grand Canyon in the offseason.
Brown is one of several players who has come aboard as a transfer and been vital in spearheading this quick rebuild for Wildcat basketball. Zahir Porter and Seikou Sisoho Jawara (affectionately known as "Sigu") have been rock-solid in Weber State’s lineup as each is averaging over 12 points a contest.
What is better than having a big man who is an imposing presence in the paint and makes life miserable for the opposition? Having two of them, of course. The ‘Cats have had a special luxury with Cody Carlson and Dontay Bassett after each joined the squad for their senior season, Bassett from perennial SEC powerhouse Florida. Carlson has seen more playing time (starting all 21 games to this point), but both are putting up 9.8 points per game with Carlson grabbing an average of five rebounds and Bassett not too far behind with 4.4.
Freshman forward Dillon Jones might not always light up the stat sheet, but he has been very efficient, shooting over 50 percent from the field and leading the team with 5.6 rebounds per game. He also provides the team with a burst of energy and hustle off the bench, often serving as the sixth man for the 2020-21 Wildcats.
Michal Kozak is the longest-tenured member of the team and has once again been a steady presence while rotating in and out of the starting lineup. The senior forward is shooting over 40 percent from beyond the arc for the first time in his career.
As all of these players have become more comfortable filling in whatever roles necessary, the group has been able to build a winning formula, thus the reason Weber State is in contention for a regular season conference title for the first time in five years.
Thursday’s contest will be the first meeting between the Wildcats and Northern Colorado in over a year. The Bears are led by first-year head coach Steve Smiley, who previously served as associate head coach for the prior four seasons, which included a run of three consecutive 20-win campaigns.
However, Northern Colorado is up a creek this season when compared to their recent success. The Bears (10-9, 6-7 Big Sky) are simply battling for a respective seed in Boise, currently sitting at seventh in the standings. They recently went 24 days without playing a game as the program was forced to take a pause due to COVID-19 issues. Northern Colorado returned with a win over NAIA program Warner Pacific on Feb. 22, then split a pair of close contests against Portland State at home.
Juniors Bodie Hume, Daylen Kountz and Matt Johnson rank in the top three for the Bears in terms of scoring, averaging 14.6, 13.7 and 13.4 points per game, respectively. Despite the veteran leadership they bring to the table, only one senior has seen game action for Northern Colorado this season in the person of reserve guard Rodrick McCobb.
The Wildcats have two recent memorable victories over the Bears at The Dee, coming in back-to-back seasons. On Feb. 10, 2018, Weber State erased a 14-point first-half deficit and eventually defeated Northern Colorado 70-65 in overtime thanks to heroics from Jerrick Harding and Zach Braxton on an electric Saturday night in Ogden.
Nearly a year later, the ‘Cats took over sole possession of first place in the Big Sky with a 78-64 triumph over UNC as Cody John led the way with a 20-point effort. Although Weber State slumped down the stretch of that season, it is a memory that is sure to bring smiles to the faces of diehard fans as the same opponent returns to town for another crucial contest.
Tip will be at 7 p.m. on Thursday and noon on Saturday as the Wildcats bid adieu to another year at the Dee Events Center with a chance to achieve a special mark. Weber State is 10-0 in the Purple Palace this season and they will look to finish unbeaten on their home court for the first time since 2011-12, when they finished 16-0.