Wednesday , March 19, 2014 - 7:56 PM
SAN DIEGO -- Weber State coach Randy Rahe has been intensely scrutinizing film of the Arizona basketball team in preparation for Friday’s NCAA Tournament game.
When the season is over, he said, he’s going to keep watching the Pac-12 Wildcats, particularly their suffocating defense.
“I love how they play. In fact, I told my staff I’m going to study them in the offseason,” Rahe said. “I want to go meet with them, I want to talk to them about their defense, I want to try to get some ideas from (Arizona coach Sean Miller). That’s how impressive they are.”
Arizona is ranked fifth in the country in scoring defense, limiting opponents to 58.1 points per game, fourth in rebounding margin (+8.4) and seventh in field goal percentage defense (.381).
Those numbers are significant to Rahe, a coach who emphasizes defense and rebounding to his players on a daily basis. They add up to outscoring opponents by an average of 14.9 points per game, which explains Arizona’s sparkling 30-4 record and winning the Pac-12 after starting the season 21-0.
The red-and-blue Wildcats bring high-level, NBA-ready players with athleticism and length to a defense that’s “maybe as good as there is in the country,” Rahe said. “You combine that with great coaching -- Sean Miller is a great defensive coach -- now you’ve got something special. That’s what they are.”
Weber State led the Big Sky Conference in defense (66.4 ppg).
The purple Wildcats will have to be at the top of their game to limit Pac-12 player of the year and first-team all-America Nick Johnson (16.2 points and 4.0 rebounds per game), a junior guard, and the Pac-12 freshman of the year, forward Aaron Gordon (12.1 ppg, 7.8 rpg).
Arizona and Weber State have met four times in their history, with Arizona winning all four. The last time they played, in 2008, WSU assistant Kellen McCoy was on the team.
Weber State was was the preseason favorite to win the Big Sky Conference by a wide margin, but they’re obviously underdogs for Friday’s game -- even if former Weber State star and current Portland Trail Blazers’ All-Star Damian Lillard has them winning the national championship in a bracket he filled out for USA Today.
Despite being the conference favorites, the Wildcats have approached the season with an underdog mentality, particularly after they started the year 2-5 and had little momentum as they entered league play.
“We’ve embraced that role all season,” senior center Kyle Tresnak said. “We had a very tough non-conference schedule and we were considered the underdog in a lot of those games so we’ve adjusted to that.”
Some had downgraded their expectations for Weber State as it began the Big Sky schedule, so they kept that attitude, Tresnak said. “We kind of went into every game thinking we’re the underdogs and played that way.”
Weber State assistant Eric Duft has been to the NCAA Tournament once before, though that was a different type of year, in 2006-07, Rahe’s first as a head coach, when the Wildcats were a surprise winner of the Big Sky tourney.
“It’s very rewarding (to make the NCAA Tournament) this year, as young as we were and fighting those expectations that came along with the preseason rankings,” Duft said.
Maybe nothing can prepare Weber State for the circus environment of the NCAA Tournament, but Duft said the Wildcats tried to prepare by scheduling tourney teams like BYU and UCLA.
“A lot of times coaches are fearful to schedule heavily in the pre-conference portion of the schedule, but hey, the kids want to play in those games,” Duft said. “And if you’re fortunate to make it this far, you’ve had some experience playing against tournament-caliber teams.”
Unfortunately, so has Arizona. Weber State was 0-2 against BYU and UCLA, while the Pac-12 Wildcats were 13-3 against current tourney teams, the best record in the country.
Freshman guard Jeremy Senglin said Weber State will prepare the same way it always does.
“We just do what we do,” Senglin said. “Like coach Rahe said, ‘A 16 has to beat a one sometime.’ It’s going to happen one of these days. Why can’t it be us? We’re going to give it our best shot, we’re going to play hard, we’re not going to back down to anybody.”
The Wildcats will get their first taste of the bright lights of the Big Dance today, meeting with the national media and playing in an open practice at Viejas Arena.
They’re going to try to enjoy it, Senglin and Tresnak said.
“No one on our team has been able to experience this, this environment, the NCAA Tournament,” Tresnak said. “Coach Rahe just kind of said, soak it all in. We’re not there just to show up, but just enjoy all the things around it. Just don’t get too nervous about the game. We know how we can play, we’re playing our best basketball right now, we just need to know that we’re prepared -- not let things get to us and make us nervous.”
History will be Weber State’s enemy Friday -- no No. 16 team has ever beaten a No. 1 in an NCAA Tournament -- a fact the Wildcats would just as soon forget.
“Put it out of your mind and let’s go,” Rahe said. “We’re going to go take a swing at them. Where there’s opportunity, there’s hope. Nothing is ever a given. We’re just going to go in there and we’re going to go in swinging, and try to hang around with them. The longer you can hang around with them, you never know.
“They’re going to keep score, there’s going to be referees, we put five guys out there, they put five guys out there. When you do that, anything can happen.”
If that sounds like Hickory High coach Norman Dale in “Hoosiers,” Rahe isn’t going to go as far as taking a tape measure to prove to his team that the hoop at Viejas Arena is still 10 feet high, just like the one at the Dee Events Center.
“Nah,” he said. “We won’t get that corny.”
Contact reporter Roy Burton at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @RoyBurtonSE.
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