Right on cue, ESPN.com has ranked Weber State as one of the 50 most successful basketball programs of the last 50 years — just in time for the Wildcats to celebrate their 50th anniversary of Division I athletics.
Using a point system based on categories like NCAA Tournament appearances and performance, regular season conference championships, All-Americans and top 10 NBA draft picks, the sports network rated Weber State at No. 39 with 207 points on Tuesday, three spots behind in-state rival BYU at 36.
With a handful of Sweet 16, Elite 8 and NCAA championship game appearances, the University of Utah may crack the top 25. Utah State was not listed.
“You think about that for a minute,” former Weber State sports information director Brad Larsen said. “Three teams from the state of Utah, are you kidding me? I bet we have the most teams per capita, population versus schools.
“There will be maybe four or five states that have more than three, but (they’d have) more population.”
Larsen, who worked for 31 years at Weber State, has probably seen more Wildcats basketball games than anyone in the school’s history.
Two-time Big Sky MVP Damian Lillard’s selection at No. 6 by the Portland Trail Blazers in the 2012 draft gave WSU a boost in ESPN.com’s “prestige points” — though the Wildcats won’t get any credit for his NBA Summer League co-MVP award or future NBA accolades. The ratings were based on collegiate performance; Weber State’s 20 regular-season conference titles rank eighth nationally in the past 50 seasons.
“Obviously, Damian’s individual honors are the biggest anyone’s had in Weber State history, there’s no question about that,” Larsen said. “Back in the ’70s and early ’80s, they’d have like eight rounds in the draft, so we’d have guys get picked, but a lot of them were fourth and fifth rounds — nothing on the scale of Damian.
“I’ve seen a lot of Big Sky players over the last 30 years. We’ve had some good ones. I think he’s as good as any. If he’s not the best, he’s certainly amongst the top three.”
ESPN.com’s “starting five” for the last half-century of Weber State basketball includes Lillard (2008-12) and Jermaine Boyette (2000-03) as guards, forwards Harold Arceneaux (1998-2000) and Bruce Collins (1976-80) and center Willie Sojourner (1968-71). Eddie Gill (1998-2000), Jimmy Degraffenried (1991-96) and Rico Washington (1987-89) were listed as next off the bench. Former NBA coach of the year and longtime Utah Jazz assistant Phil Johnson (1968-71) was named the top WSU coach since 1962.
That time frame coincides perfectly with Weber State’s history: The 1962-63 season was its first in Division I.
Larsen said it’s not the first time a national publication has recognized Weber State’s basketball history.
“Four or five years ago, (Street & Smith’s) did the top 100 programs of all time, and we were 51st on that list. What they said was, we were the original small college power, we were Gonzaga before Gonzaga and all the small schools,” he said. “That’s a pretty good recognition.”
ESPN.com rated the top three seasons in Weber State history: 1968-69 (27-3, NCAA Sweet 16), 1979-80 (26-3, NCAA first round, 1998-99 (25-8, NCAA second round).
In addition to Lillard’s high draft selection, Weber State has received national notoriety in the decades since those highly rated early ’80s squads for winning first-round NCAA Tournament games in the ’90s as heavy underdogs.
Arceneaux poured in 36 points as WSU’s 15-seeded Cinderella squad knocked off the defending national champ North Carolina in 1999, just four years after the Wildcats beat Michigan State as a 14-seed in ’95.
“The win over Michigan State, even though Michigan State might not have as big a name as North Carolina, they were still a pretty good team,” Larsen said. “There were three NBA guys on that team. We hadn’t won a game in the NCAA Tournament for awhile, we actually hadn’t been (to the tournament) for awhile.
“Most people would probably say beating North Carolina (was a bigger win). The thing about the ’95 win for me was, we almost beat Georgetown with Allen Iverson, Othella Harrington and Donald Reid, three other NBA guys. We were (three points) away from beating them and going to the Sweet 16.”