Thursday night Weber State suffered a 60-56 loss to Southern Utah, falling to the Thunderbirds for the second time this season. What makes matters worse for Randy Rahe’s team is the fact that they’ve lost sophomore guard Jeremy Senglin for four weeks after he suffered a broken jaw in the second half of that game.
Senglin, who was the Big Sky Freshman of the Year last season, is Weber State’s leader in both scoring (16.0 ppg) and assists (3.4 apg).
“I couldn’t feel worse for Jeremy,” Rahe said in a release announcing the news. “He’s an extremely tough and competitive player and I know how hard it is for him to not be able to play and help his team. Our main concern is to get him healthy. He will bounce back from this and has a very bright future with us.”
This is obviously a big loss for the Wildcats, who at 5-7 in conference play aren’t a lock to qualify for the Big Sky tournament. The top eight teams in the 12-team conference get the opportunity to compete for the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, and Weber State is currently tied for seventh with Portland State.
Without Senglin, guards Richaud Gittens and Chris Golden will be asked to do even more down the stretch offensively.
No longer supplementary pieces, two Texans will lead the way at Weber State
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.”
Names you need to know: G Davion Berry (19.1 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 4.0 apg), G Jeremy Senglin (11.1, 2.1, 2.2), F Kyle Tresnak (11.2, 4.8)
Stats you need to know: Weber State led the Big Sky in scoring defense and field goal percentage defense, limiting opponents to 42.5% shooting from the field. Offensively, the Wildcats scored a respectable 72.7 points per game, ranking second in both field goal (47.8%) and free throw percentage (73.3%) and first in three-point percentage (38.9%). From a playing time standpoint seven players are averaging at least 18 minutes per game.
Tendencies: Berry is the key decision-maker for the Wildcats, as he factors into 29.9% of the team’s possessions and ranks second in the Big Sky in offensive rating (minimum 24% possessions). Tresnak is the team’s best interior scoring option, with sophomore Joel Bolomboy being the best rebounder with 10.8 rebounds per game. Weber State isn’t great at forcing turnovers but they are one of the best teams in the country when it comes to blocking shots, ranking third nationally in block percentage (6.1%; Tresnak averages 1.9 blocks/game).
Big wins, bad losses: The Wildcats didn’t pick up a non-conference win of note, losing to BYU and UCLA. Weber State beat North Dakota three times, Northern Colorado twice and split their two meetings with Montana in conference play.
How’d they get here?: Led by Tresnak, who scored 27 points (11-for-15 FG) and grabbed five rebounds, the Wildcats beat North Dakota 88-67 in the Big West title game.
Outlook: While Berry’s a talented player capable of giving opponents fits, it’s difficult to see this team winning a game unless they wind up in Dayton for the First Four.
How do I know you?: The Wildcats are making their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2007, but this is a program that along with Montana has set the standard in the Big Sky in recent years. And you’re probably familiar with alum Damian Lillard, who’s now one of the best young guards in the NBA with the Portland Trail Blazers.