Southern Utah picked up its second consecutive Big Sky victory on Saturday, as they beat preseason favorite Weber State 70-60 in Cedar City with Tyler Rawson and Casey Oliverson scoring 16 points apiece to lead the way. The win was a big one for Nick Robinson’s program, especially when considering the fact that the Thunderbirds hadn’t won consecutive conference games since February 2013.
One of the highlights in Southern Utah’s second conference win of the season (they only won one in 2013-14) was Juwan Major’s dunk on Weber State big man (and in this play, weak side defender) Joel Bolomboy. The dunk was part of a 14-0 second half run that turned a 46-all tie into a 60-46 Southern Utah lead the Thunderbirds would not relinquish.
Video credit: Southern Utah Athletics (h/t Big Sky Conference)
In eight seasons at Weber State, head coach Randy Rahe has won 169 games (just over 21 wins per season) but prior to the 2013-14 campaign the Wildcats made just one NCAA tournament appearance under his watch. Thanks in large part to four seniors, led by Big Sky Player of the Year Davion Berry, that changed, with Weber State winning the Big Sky regular season and tournament titles. With their eyes on a repeat the Wildcats begin the season with just one senior, but their returnees have plenty of experience when it comes to contributing to a championship run.
The question for Weber State: can those supplementary options step forward into primary roles? The good news for Weber State is that the staff has done well on the recruiting trail in recent years, and players who hail from Texas make up nearly one-third of the roster entering the 2014-15 campaign. Looking for talent in areas they may not have hit hard in the past is something many programs do. In the case of Weber State, they’ve worked hard to build relationships within Texas and the efforts have paid off.
“We always want to be recruiting Utah first, going after the same guys who are going to BYU or Utah or Utah State. We don’t want to settle,” Rahe told NBCSports.com in a phone interview last week. “We’ve had a harder time beating those schools for some guys, so we’ve gone to Arizona where we’ve had some success and northern California where we’ve gotten guys like Damian Lillard, Davion Berry and Frank Otis.
“But we decided that we needed to go to another spot, and I told my assistant Phil Beckner [who’s now with the Oklahoma City Thunder], ‘I want you to dive into Texas and see what you can do.’ He did a great job of establishing inroads and getting to know people. The first guy we got out of there was Joel Bolomboy, who we found at an early age. By the summer before his senior year he was 6-foot-9 and all of a sudden Clemson, Auburn and New Mexico (were interested). But he hung with us and showed a lot of loyalty, and since then we’ve kept going down there.”
Bolomboy is one of two Texans who were a part of the starting lineup last season, with sophomore guard Jeremy Senglin being the other. Bolomboy contributed 8.7 points and a Big Sky-best 11.0 rebounds per game as a sophomore, with Senglin accounting for 10.9 points, 2.2 rebounds and 2.2 assists at the off-guard position. Both were recognized by Big Sky coaches for their efforts at the end of the season, as Bolomboy was named Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year and Senglin winning Big Sky Freshman of the Year honors.
Due to the departures responsibilities will change for both, especially for Senglin as he’ll be asked to move into the role of primary ball-handler.
“He didn’t have to be the main guy as a true freshman. He could fit in, and he filled that role really well,” Rahe said of Senglin. “This year obviously his level of responsibility in our program has to go up. From a scoring standpoint we’re probably going to need a bit more from him, and we’re going to need more from a leadership standpoint. I think he can be a very good point guard, and everything has to kick up another notch for him. Now he’s got more responsibility, and he’s going to have to mix in the scoring and getting his teammates involved.”
The process of moving into the role of primary ball-handler can be a difficult one, because there’s a lot more that goes into the process than simply thinking that one has to pass the ball more. The understanding of when to get your teammates the ball and where they should get the ball is key, as is the need to understand when it’s time to pursue your own scoring opportunities and when it’s time to run something to get someone else a shot. Senglin gained experience in both perimeter roles during his high school years, including a stint alongside Emmanuel Mudiay with the Texas Select program, and those are experiences Weber State expects to serve Senglin well as he adjust to a different role.
In regards to Bolomboy, his ability as both a rebounder and defender has been present since he arrived on campus, as he tallied 7.4 points and 7.1 rebounds per game as a freshman in 2012-13 despite not starting a single game. The key for Bolomboy this offseason was to expand his game, and despite getting just a week and a half with Ukraine’s national team before suffering a bone bruise in his knee he was able to work on becoming a more consistent offensive player.
Last season, 45.3% of Bolomboy’s field goal attempts were two-point jumpers, according to hoop-math.com, and he made just 28.6% of those shots. The short amount of time Bolomboy worked under Ukraine head coach Mike Fratello helped the junior add some polish to his offensive skill set, and according to Rahe, the improvement has been noticeable since his leading rebounder returned to Ogden.
“He was playing with older guys,” Rahe said when asked how the summer experience helped Bolomboy. “He was being coached by coach Fratello, who is a great coach and knows what he’s doing. For us, it was great because now he hears another voice. It was good for him to hear some of the same things we’ve been telling him but from someone else, which kind of reinforces what we’ve been trying to get him to do.”
Bolomboy isn’t going to be a player who hoists up 20 shots a night, and that’s fine. Weber State doesn’t need him to be that kind of player. But they did need him to use this offseason to improve his offensive skill set, because in addition to Berry the Wildcats lost their second-leading scorer in Kyle Tresnak (11.5 ppg, 4.7 rpg) and a key contributor in Jordan Richardson (7.1, 2.3, 2.5 apg). With those losses, not to mention fellow senior Byron Fulton and junior Royce Williams, Bolomboy’s progression from supplementary offensive piece to primary option is one of the biggest storylines for Weber State as they look to repeat as Big Sky champions. What’s helped matters is the fact that Bolomboy has worked incredibly hard on his game.
“Joel is an extremely hard worker,” Rahe noted. “He wants to be as good as he can possibly be. When we first got Joel as a freshman, he was always very athletic and rebounded at a high level because of his athleticism, but he needed a lot of skill work. His ball-handling, his passing, his shooting, which then (if improved) would help him get a better feel for the game and how the game was played. His skill level and feel for the game as a freshman was not very good, so those were the two areas that we really tried to hit hard.
“Just improving his overall skill level and ball-handling; the better you can handle the ball, the better you feel about the game and you see the game better,” Rahe continued. “He’s really come a long way. He’s starting to feel the game better and his skill level has gotten very good for a 6-9, 235-pound player. He can now shoot the ball from three and we’re allowing him to do that, and he can now make plays off the bounce as well.
“He’s really come a long way in two years, and a lot of it has to do with his overall work ethic and how good he wants to be.”
Bolomboy and Senglin are the two players most will focus on when assessing the Wildcats’ chances of retaining possession of the Big Sky title due to the roles they filled a season ago. But it’ll take a lot more than just two players to accomplish that goal, with players such as sophomores Richaud Gittens and Kyndahl Hill also in spots where they’ll be able to contribute more. A team that was led by five seniors a season ago will have just one in 2014-15. But even with the relative lack of experience the standards within the program don’t change, with Rahe having three areas that he focuses on every season.
“The things I always worry about before every season are: 1. How tough are we?” Rahe said. “Are we going to be tough enough mentally? Physically? That’s something we try to hang our hat on up here. 2. How hard we’re going to play; and 3. how together we’re going to be. Those three areas are things that we try to keep consistent every year. It’s those intangibles that come through for us, and I believe that we have enough talent to be competitive.”
Weber State may be the nation’s unluckiest team. Over the course of the past five Big Sky conference tournaments, the Wildcats, which haven’t received lower than a three seed, have consistently lost to a team from Montana, and consequently found themselves outside of the bubble each of those five seasons. In fact, Randy Rahe’s squad hasn’t made the NCAA field since the 2006-07 season, but WSU is persistent, again reached the top of the Big Sky rankings, earning the top seed, an honor that means the team not only gets a first-round bye to then play the lowest-remaining seed for their first game, but also has home court advantage throughout the multi-day tournament. It would seem that Weber State would have a cake walk to the postseason, but the Wildcats may still miss out. This is arguably the closest league tournament field in recent years, and WSU could possibly face Montana or Northern Colorado, two teams who have beaten the Wildcats once this season, in their opening contest.
The Wildcats are stacked. Davion Berry was recently named the conference’s player of the year, sophomore center Joel Bolomboy was honored with a defensive player of the year nod, and Jeremy Senglin, who made 41 percent of his threes in his inaugural Wildcat season, was crowned the freshman of the year. Thanks to the squad’s proficiency from beyond the arc — other than Senglin, Berry and Jordan Richardson convert more than 35 of their attempts — Weber State’s effective field goal percentage tops the league. However, if the team is going to get through the tournament’s three days unscathed, their defense will have to propel them. It starts with Bolomboy, a 6-foot-9 big who needs to develop an offensive game before he can mentioned as one of the nation’s best forwards; Bolomboy has posted a stellar defensive rebounding percentage of 28 percent and when combined with his lack of fouls, it is very difficult to engineer additional possessions when Bolomboy is on the court. The rest of the team is equally as defensive minded — 1.03 OPPP, which leads the Big Sky.
And if they lose? Northern Colorado
The Bears are the team to watch during the Big Sky tournament. They beat Northern Arizona, the conference’s hottest team, twice during league play, have defeated Montana twice (once in overtime), and split with Weber State. They haven’t shown any propensity for defense — only Southern Utah has allowed more points per possession in league play — but BJ Hill’s team is fun to watch operate within the arc. UNC grabs a high rate of their own misses, and spend most offensive possessions converting twos, making 55 percent of their attempts.
Montana: This squad isn’t reminiscent of Montana teams of yesteryear (they are uncharacteristically poor on defense), but the Grizzlies have to be included as a title candidate since Kareem Jamar is still on the squad. The senior’s last Big Sky tournament go-around, the guard again had an outstanding season, upping his offensive rating to 116 and drawing two more fouls per 40 minutes than a year ago. Jamar will have to carry Montana if the team is to make a tourney run.
Northern Arizona: Jack Murphy is easily the conference’s coach of the year. A year after finishing well below .500, the Lumberjacks posted a 15-16 record and garnered the Big Sky’s No. 3 seed. Some even consider NAU as the favorite to take the league’s title. The team has won their last four games, a streak which included victories over Weber State and Montana. Quinton Upshur, a transfer from VMI, has provided offensive balance to a team that lost both Gabe Rogers and Dewayne Russell after the 2013 season.
Davion Berry, Weber State: After a strong junior year, the 6-foot-4 Berry needed to prove he could both run a team’s offense while still providing a scoring punch, and he succeeded in both areas, boosting his assist rate to nearly 30 percent and becoming more efficient within and beyond the arc while attempting fewer shots.
Derrick Barden, Northern Colorado: Though he stands just 6-foot-5, Barden is UNC’s best frontcourt option. As an unabashed fan of undersized bigs, watching Barden dislodge larger opponents is enjoyable, and the ex-juco forward is skilled converting on the interior (61 percent around the bucket).
Troy Huff, North Dakota: The senior rarely gets a break. He is such a high usage player, attempting more than 30 percent of the team’s shots in each of his four seasons, but what is most impressive about the 6-foot-5 Huff is his ability to get to the free throw stripe at a higher clip in 2014. He has attempted over 200 free throws, and is drawing two more fouls per 40 minutes than last year.
Kareem Jamar, Montana: A sentimental favorite. Jamar is still playing at a high level, and has been crucial to Montana’s past two NCAA tourney teams.
CBT Prediction: It’s a toss up between Northern Arizona and Northern Colorado, and unfortunately for fans of the Big Sky, the two teams play each other in the opening round. NoCo, though, has the offense and experience to earn the league’s automatic bid.