OGDEN — By most measures, the 2018-19 season was the second-worst of 13 Weber State men’s basketball campaigns under head coach Randy Rahe.
Second-worst league finish (4th), second-worst Ken Pomeroy rating (224), second-worst adjusted offensive efficiency.
But watching most games, Weber State didn’t look like a bad team, especially in its brightest moments — such as scoring 66 points in the second half to beat BYU 113-103, or holding Northern Colorado to 64 points in a home win during a hot start to conference play.
But even the 2010-11 team that suffered the shock of losing Damian Lillard early in the season was better, finishing the regular season at 18-12. This year’s team was 17-14 in the regular season.
“This was probably the most frustrating season I’ve had since I’ve been here based on the inconsistency of our team. We were up and down and all over the place, especially the second half of the league,” Rahe told the Standard-Examiner a few days after the Wildcats bowed out of the 2018-19 season with a blowout loss to Montana in the Big Sky Conference tournament semifinals.
How could a team that appeared to be so talented wilt down the stretch?
- By BRETT HEIN, Standard-Examiner
Rahe said his team was together and locked in during the good start to league play, but after returning from the Montana road trip at 7-2, that started to dissipate.
“Nothing had to do with anything off the court. The guys liked each other, we had none of that going on. If you have some guys here who are ready and a few guys there who aren’t … It was a mentality thing. If you’re fighting for your team to be more connected (on the court) during conference play, that’s the wrong time to be fighting that. That’s why we were so inconsistent,” Rahe said.
“Every once in a while we’d have the same preparation and mindset, and we’d play good. Then the next game, we wouldn’t know what to expect.”
The deeper the season goes with the same battle, the less competitive a team becomes, Rahe said.
“It was kind of exhausting because you had to constantly be concerned about making sure about trying to get everyone on the same page for the next game, rather than Xs and Os. When you’re mentally not there, what it does if we have a guy or two not mentally there who’s being counted on, it drains the energy from everyone else. Then you don’t play quite as hard, you’re not as tough,” he said.
“And that’s what it turned out to be sometimes. It’s the first time in my time here I’ve had that concern. … When you get to the second half when the season gets longer, you get to the grind, that’s when you really have to be on the same page. And that’s when we weren’t.”
The slate is wiped clean in June when official team activities can begin. Rahe says his program’s culture must reset to what is usually the status quo: tough defense from relentless competitors who will connect with each other consistently.
Rahe was ready to start Monday.
“After taking a couple days of getting over the season being over and going through the doldrums, then I started, ‘What are we going to run next year? Let’s look at our team,'” Rahe said. “I’m watching film on everyone, and all the new guys, so we can think about the sets we can put in for them. I can’t wait for June 1 to get here.”
Most of the same team returns next season, along with four incoming newcomers. So what’s behind the excitement?
It starts with Jerrick Harding and Cody John, who will be senior guards and likely the toughest guard duo in the league next season (they combined to average 36.2 points per game this season). After the regular-season finale, Rahe praised the two for how they battled in a loss to Eastern Washington. He called them “warriors.”
Rahe said he believes both have another development jump left in them. Both can become consistently better at defense, he said. Both “want to win” and will rise up to take their spots as senior leaders. Harding, he said, will become better at making his teammates better.
John turned in an impressive return after a back injury sidelined him before and during all of the 2017-18 season. Rahe said his work ethic to get back had him ready from Game 1 and he has it in him to become a better caretaker of the ball.
“Both those kids — Cody and Jerrick — are going to work their a– off because they want it so badly,” Rahe said.
Reliable juniors Michal Kozak and Doc Nelson return. Rahe said this year’s freshmen moving into their sophomore seasons are expected to make big jumps forward: Israel Barnes, Caleb Nero, Donatas Kupsas and Dima Zdor.
Rahe said among the many hungry, passionate players for the game of basketball he’s had in 13 seasons, Zdor is near the top and has the work ethic to match the ceiling many projected for him out of high school.
Plus, Tim Fuller is somewhat of an X-factor. The returned missionary redshirted his first season with the program but, as the big man rounded his game back into shape, became somewhat of a matchup problem in practice.
“Really excited about what he’s going to bring,” Rahe said. “He’s a flat-out tough, competitive kid. He’s got a ton of maturity and he’s really secure in what he is. He’s going to help us immediately.”
Newcomers KJ Cunningham and Judah Jordan — preps from Texas and Maryland, respectively — bring physically mature bodies to the guard line and up the level of competition in that unit. Both are signed to the program.
Wing player Austin Galuppo, a California prep who spent a post-high-school year with Jordan at Scotland Campus in Pennsylvania, turned heads in last week’s national prep school tournament with tough drives and a barrage of 3-pointers.
Bouki Diakite, a former four-star forward who began his career at St. John’s, comes in as a sophomore with apparent stretch-4 abilities and playmaking athleticism.
Galuppo and Diakite are expected to sign as soon as the next signing period opens April 17. Those two and Jordan will arrive at Weber State in May.
“I feel confident this is a competitive group that will come together,” Rahe said. “I’m really excited about our future.”
That future will bring continued offensive tweaks. Before a 49-point outing to end the season, the 2018-19 squad was on track to become Rahe’s first team to score more than 80 points per game. But efficiency wasn’t always there.
Rahe said his team will still push the tempo and look for transition buckets often, but coaches will also prepare more set plays to take advantage of each player’s strengths and get them good looks.
“This is the third year of a new system and it should feel more like we have the right roles for it,” Rahe said.
Rahe is now 266-153 (.635) at Weber State. Only once has WSU finished at .500 or worse in his tenure, and he repeatedly called the just-concluded season “frustrating.”
He says a season like this fans his coaching flames more than ever. Assistant coaches had to back him off the idea of finding out if it was permissible to practice Monday, he said.
“I couldn’t be more excited about the future and where we’re headed and the things that lie ahead of us. There’s going to be some really good things coming up on the horizon. I just feel it, I know it,” Rahe said. “This year was hard, but you do it long enough, you’re going to have a year or two where it’s not going to be what you want it to be.
“Whenever that happens, like this year was a little more difficult for us, I get more excited about the next year to get back going the right way. … I enjoy putting teams together and getting teams playing tough and hard and coming together as a group. It fires me up. We got back from the tournament — and of course, you take the weekend and you think about things and process things — but on Monday, the first thing we did was say, ‘Onward and upward, let’s get going. Let’s roll.'”
Any time a school in the West has a head-coach opening, Rahe’s name is usually bandied about by writers as the coaching rumor mill gets churning. Though he’s not a true candidate for most of them, there have been serious overtures from some programs.
Rahe says he’s never chased another job while at Weber State.
“I’ve been involved in a few openings but I’ve never gone after them. I’m not ever looking to do that, I’m not going to do that now. It’s not what I’m doing,” he said.
Some of his coaching friends who have moved from the mid-major world to jobs in the high-stakes, cash-rich, high-major conferences wonder why he hasn’t tried the same.
“Because I’m happy,” he said. “It’s simple. If you’re happy, why would you mess with it for a few — well, sometimes maybe a lot more — dollars? But it’s not about that. I’ve never looked at money in making a decision. You don’t screw with happiness.
“And these friends, they haven’t been nearly as happy as they were when they were at the places they left, except for twice a month when they get paid.”
Despite Rahe’s record, consistent interest from other programs in the West and those of his coaching friends who think he’s capable of a high-major challenge, there’s understandably some level of griping about his performance given this season.
While he hasn’t seen it directly, Rahe knows there is bound to be criticism of him and the program after this season’s letdown, even some fans who go as far as to call for his job.
“Some people can’t wait for something a little negative to happen so they can complain about it and have a voice. There are people like that everywhere, so you can’t avoid it,” Rahe said.
“I know the job we’ve done here and sometimes it’s not always going to be perfect. You can’t do this as long as I’ve been doing it without having a season or two that isn’t what you want. I understand that everyone wants perfection. It’s hard to be really good all the time,” he explained. “I know what we’ve done, I know how we run our program. We do it the right way with good kids. … I’m very confident in how we do things here.
“This was one of those years where it just wasn’t right, but I know how to fix it and it’s going to get fixed.”
With that feeling of “some really good things” coming in the future, Rahe, who is 58, says he “feels great” about continuing the grind at Weber State.
“We feel so close to the university and the community,” he said. “Our administration has been so good to me and my family and our program. I just feel like this is home. So does my wife and so do my kids. I love my job. I think I’ve got as good a job as there is in the country because I think it’s a great fit for me and the kids I get to coach here.
“I’m just extremely thankful to be the head coach here.”
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