OGDEN -- The 2011-12 Big Sky Conference basketball season ended with a pair of heavyweight bouts between Weber State and Montana.
The Grizzlies won both rounds and were picked to repeat as champion in the league's preseason polls this year.
If the Wildcats, who were picked second, are going to step into the ring for a rematch in 2012-13, the journey begins tonight when Weber State opens the regular season at 7 p.m. at the Dee Events Center against NAIA school Arizona Christian.
While the Wildcats will be expected to walk all over the lower-division Firestorm in tonight's tune-up, the battle to return to the top tier of the Big(ger) Sky this season should be much more intense.
Weber State will have to get there despite the departures of NBA first-round draft pick Damian Lillard and senior leaders Darin Mahoney and Kyle Bullinger, who each played over 100 games at Weber State -- Mahoney appeared in more games than any player in Big Sky history.
Replacing the on- and off-court leadership of Lillard, Mahoney and Bullinger is seventh-year Weber State coach Randy Rahe's primary concern entering the 2012-13 season.
"I think it's starting to come a little bit. There are a lot of guys that are trying to step into that role some, guys who are communicating more," he said. "We've talked about leadership by example, especially the older kids. Guys are really trying to do that. Our kids are starting to learn how hard they've got to play every day. We're getting a lot more consistent effort now on a daily basis and I think with that starts to come some leadership."
Frank Otis and Scott Bamforth are doing a good job at taking the leadership role expected of seniors, Rahe said, but the team needs to continue to develop the trait.
"We're going to find out what kind of leadership we have when we go on the road, in tough situations," he said.
The Wildcats also need depth to replace starters' minutes from Bullinger and Mahoney as well as the sheer volume of Lillard's scoring production. The Big Sky MVP point guard from Oakland, Calif., now an NBA rookie sensation for the Portland Trail Blazers, was second in the nation in scoring last season (24.5 points per game), and is the second-leading scorer in Weber State history.
"Being balanced on offense is going to be very important to us," Rahe said. "We got some guys in double figures and guys sharing the ball and moving the ball, and with that, with ball movement and guys making the extra passes, we really thrive on being an inside-outside basketball team. When you get that, balance comes and everybody gets opportunities."
Junior Jordan Richardson started at point guard in Weber State's exhibition contest and will be pushed for playing time by speedy sophomore Gelaun Wheelwright, a one-time USC-commit who is learning the position but showed tremendous upside at the end of last season.
Bamforth, the senior sharpshooter, was first-team All-Big Sky as a sophomore shooting guard and second-team last year. He averaged 14.5 points per game, second on the team behind Lillard, and is capable of being one of the top 3-point threats in the country.
Junior guard/forward Davion Berry, who sat out last season after transferring from Cal State Monterey Bay, where he was a Division II All-American, has already shown his scoring ability, leading the Wildcats in both their preseason scrimmage and their exhibition game.
After battling knee problems for much of last season, Otis appears to be healthy and ready to contribute again at forward. Junior forward Byron Fulton, who is capable of providing instant offense off the bench, recently had his knee scoped. Fulton is expected to return to practice next week.
Junior center Kyle Tresnak received honorable mention all-Big Sky honors after averaging 10.0 ppg and will be backed up by sophomore James Hajek, who has returned after a knee injury ended his freshman season early.
The Wildcats expect to get depth off the bench from newcomers Joel Bolomboy, a 6-9 freshman forward/center with game-changing potential and sophomore transfers Royce Williams at guard/forward and Wayne Bradford at guard.
Freshman forward Kyndahl Hill and junior transfer guard Duce Zaid are expected to redshirt, Rahe said.
On the bench, new assistant Keith Berard will join Eric Duft and Phil Beckner on Rahe's staff after 10 seasons at Houston Baptist and Texas Southern, while Kadin Kirk was promoted to director of basketball operations.
The battle for the Big Sky will be longer this year in terms of both time and travel miles with the additions of new schools Southern Utah and North Dakota.
A twenty-game conference schedule moves Weber State's first league road trip to before Christmas. Of the Big Sky's 11 teams, seven will qualify for the Big Sky Conference Tournament, to be hosted by the regular-season winner.
The Wildcats enter the season on a 17-game home winning streak and will prepare for the extended Big Sky schedule with out-of-conference games against in-state foes Utah State, Utah Valley and BYU as well as San Jose State, Dayton and UC Irvine.
The leadership and depth Rahe is looking for may be tested most in a four-game road exodus beginning in late January that will see Weber State travel to Montana State, Montana, North Dakota and Northern Colorado.
A challenge like that could reveal if the Wildcats are contenders for the title.