Sacrifice is the watchword for Weber State men’s basketball this season
OGDEN — Dillon Jones wasn’t sure what to expect when his core of returning teammates at Weber State would welcome in two senior transfers who were obviously going to require significant playing time.
JJ Overton led Utah Valley in scoring last season and Koby McEwen spent two seasons each at Utah State and Marquette, winning conference freshman of the year honors and racking up 117 career games.
The resulting questions are natural: how will this affect rotations, minutes, team chemistry? Publicly, Overton said he just wanted to “do my part” and “be part of that winning culture.”
For McEwen, it might be reasonable to view such a move from the Mountain West to the Big East to the Big Sky in a certain, individual way. Instead of choosing Arkansas or Oregon, McEwen said in the spring his choice to play at Weber State was about winning and the trust he had in WSU coaches to improve his game.
Jones, the reigning Big Sky freshman of the year, said potential misgivings were dispelled early and public talk lined up with what he saw on the court, in the locker room, in the weight room.
“Koby came in and was like, ‘I’m not worrying about scoring. I want to win with y’all,'” Jones said. “For a guy of that stature to come in and be like ‘I’m not worried about myself, I’m just trying to win,’ it just sets the tone on our team. So then JJ follows, because he was a good player where he was, too.
“Let’s be honest, looking around, we’re all good players. So for us to succeed, we’ve got to give up ourselves. They’re not selfish people. They want to help us win.”
Giving up yourself for the good of the team is something 16th-year head coach Randy Rahe preaches that threads together generations of Weber State players. But never in all those years has Rahe brought in players with this type of Division I experience and track record to a large core of returners.
Rahe knew bringing in McEwen and Overton would create a newfound depth, with the good, and potentially the bad, that might come with it. He and his coaching staff evaluated fits and needs through workouts and preseason camp as always, but the double-edged sword of talent and depth meant a slight change of course with the season approaching.
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About two weeks before the team’s exhibition win against Concordia-St. Paul, the staff created their vision of how the team would function on the court and communicated that to players.
“We established roles a little bit earlier,” Rahe said. “We started saying this is what we’re looking at. These are the starters, these are the guys coming off the bench and tried to get them accustomed to roles early, and the guys have handled it really well.”
Tipoffs against Concordia and the season-opener against Western Colorado revealed the vision. The starting lineup is Seikou Sisoho Jawara, McEwen, Overton, Jones and Cody Carlson — two starters from last season, two newcomers, and Jones changing from coming off the bench to starting.
Off the bench: Zahir Porter and Michal Kozak — the latter a fifth-year senior and the two who combined to start all but one game last season — with KJ Cunningham, and newcomers Dyson Koehler and Alex Tew.
Porter and Kozak responded the same way when Rahe spoke with the team about establishing roles early.
“Zahir has been awesome about coming off the bench,” Rahe said. “His response to me is, ‘I just want to win. I’ll do whatever it takes for us to win.’ He was great, and that’s sacrificing for the team. Mike was the same way. ‘Hey, I need you off the bench, you can be really good off the bench.’ And he was great about it.”
After the exhibition win, Rahe told Porter he was looking good. “You’re going to have a great year, I can tell.”
“Yessir,” Porter answered lively.
Weber State finished second in the Big Sky last season and was picked second by coaches and media ahead of this season. McEwen says giving up yourself is the key for WSU to make that next step.
“Sacrifice. Everyone’s got to give up to get what they want,” McEwen said. “We all can’t score 20, we all can’t lead the team in assists, we all can’t grab the most rebounds, we all can’t play the most minutes. So it’s going to take sacrifice, everyone takes less in order to get more.
“Because we have the talent, we have the size, we have the length, we have the coaching. We have everything we need, it just takes us giving it up for one another.”
So far, McEwen has been third in scoring in each of Weber State’s first two games — an exhibition win over Concordia-St. Paul and a 100-60 win in the season-opener against Western Colorado. He netted 16 points in one and 11 in the other.
Carlson scored 11 and 10 in those games. Dillon Jones also had point totals of 11 and 10 in those games. Porter scored 10 points in each game. Kozak averaged 13 minutes per game, totaling eight points and five rebounds. In the first two games, it was Overton (18 and 13 points) and Sisoho Jawara (17 and 13 points) leading the scoring.
“Guys are willing to sacrifice and if they continue to be willing to sacrifice, we can have a lot of success,” Rahe said.
Photo supplied, Weber State Athletics In this undated photo, Weber State guards JJ Overton, left, and Koby McEwen slap hands during a practice ahead of the 2021-22 basketball season at the Dee Events Center in Ogden.
McEwen is reflective about his college career and what’s ahead this season. He wants to be a player who can key the team when it needs a pick-me-up, whether that comes from a hustle play, a bucket, or anything else.
“I’ve never really won in my college career. I’ve had good individual performances, or good individual years, but it’s never really led to anything,” McEwen said. “So for my last year, I want to be remembered as a winner, remembered as a person who does whatever it takes to win. … If I have to score, I’ll score. If I have to make 100 passes, I’ll make 100 passes. I’ll guard the best player. I’ll rebound.
“I don’t want to leave Weber State without a championship, both conference and conference tournament. Those are my goals, and those are our goals. This is my last chance. I want to be remembered as a winner and that’s all that really matters to me. Everything else will take care of itself.”
As Jones described, that approach has rubbed off on the team and McEwen may be well-positioned to be the driver for Weber State taking that step and returning to winning championships — not on the floor, but in their heads, in their preparation, in their attitudes. If there’s one thing McEwen is known for, it’s his competitiveness.
His former coach at Marquette, Steve Wojciechowski, said McEwen is a “tremendous competitor on a daily basis. He pushes his teammates to be at their best and he’s really been an integral part of our team.”
A sentiment shared among players leading up to the season has been to learn from the somewhat stunning losses that led to finishing second, not first, and led to a conference tournament quarterfinal exit last season. McEwen said that, along with sacrifice, it will be important for players to remember the feeling they had in those moments last season and decide whether or not they want to go through it again.
Remember, for example, blowing out Portland State by 28 and eventual regular-season champ Southern Utah by 24, only to lose follow-up games to each team two days later.
“We already know we dropped the ball on some games last year we didn’t really need to drop the ball on,” Porter said. “We need to stay consistent and head into every weekend knowing we need to win, and never relax. Everybody has that sense of urgency, everybody knows what we need to do.”
Jones is carrying specific, personal memories of some of those moments with him into the season and was glad to learn where both McEwen and Overton stand mentally.
“They fit like a hand in a glove,” Jones said. “They are exactly what we needed on our team.”