Weber State men’s basketball: Eric Duft’s first season in the books; look ahead to 2023-24
Eric Duft’s chance to take control as head coach of Weber State men’s basketball finally arrived this season.
Internally, Duft’s support didn’t wane over the course of the first nine games but, in the moment, a 2-7 start with one of the country’s worst defenses didn’t help what some fans thought of his promotion to replace 16-year head man Randy Rahe.
But what followed set Duft and WSU on firm footing moving forward.
“Coaching’s like farming: the work’s never done. You’ve just got to keep adapting to the team you have,” Duft said after the season ended. “I do think we did a good job of that … We kind of had to reinvent how we were going to play.”
On a team with just two seniors and two juniors, Weber State adjusted how it played screens defensively, inserted KJ Cunningham as the starting point guard and gladly welcomed the return of wing/forward Dyson Koehler after he had surgery to address blood clots.
Going into a game against Saint Martin’s, a high-scoring Division II team that eventually won its conference with a 23-5 regular-season mark, it felt like there was a real possibility the Wildcats could lose.
Instead, WSU hammered the Saints by 24, then went on the road and throttled Cal Poly by 29. Then came a historic upset win at Utah State that launched the Wildcats into a 16-8 mark to end the season that included a third-place Big Sky finish, improved from the previous season that was heavy with seniors.
That was followed by a narrow loss at BYU, after which forward Dillon Jones promised the team’s newfound competitiveness was “not fake.”
“It’s encouraging,” Jones said after the season. “All those things that happened that went against us and we still finished third, and we’re a play away from the championship game again.”
That Utah State win was, by most available data, the best true road victory in program history. The Aggies entered the NCAA Tournament with a 26-8 record, including a No. 18 ranking in the NCAA’s NET rating and No. 21 in Ken Pomeroy’s ratings. It edges a 2012 win at Dayton and a 2000 win at Utah.
The Wildcats lost a double-overtime semifinal to repeat champion Montana State in the Big Sky tournament on a last-second lob dunk.
“There’s going to be a lot of teams that are going to lose tournament games this year and some of those teams, if they really self-reflect, are going to look at themselves and say you know what, we didn’t buy in very well, I didn’t really buy into the team, and it’s not going to hurt that much for them,” Duft said.
This year’s team wasn’t like that, he said.
“You won’t have to deal with the pain (if you don’t buy in), but that’s not what we’re about in this program. We’re going to buy in and be all-in in every aspect,” Duft said.
Jones emerged as a sure star. He totaled 17 points and 21 rebounds in a road win at Montana that saw burgeoning sharpshooter Steven Verplancken Jr. knock down a final-second 3 to deliver victory.
Jones totaled 17 points, 14 rebounds and eight assists in just 29 minutes of a home blowout of Portland State, just missing the program’s first triple-double in more than 20 years.
In the end, WSU finished 18-15 with a top-100 defensive efficiency, even counting the first nine games.
LOOK AHEAD TO 2023-24
Zahir Porter: Porter capped his three-year Weber State career this season. After starting and averaging 12 points per game in his first season, his 3-point shooting fell from 41% to under 30% as he came off the bench. But Porter became an emergency backup point guard this season and helped WSU weather unexpected rotational struggles. In his final seven regular-season games, Porter scored 11 points per game and shot 47% overall and 37% from 3. He scored 651 points at WSU.
Junior Ballard: Ballard finished his five-year college career as a graduate transfer for WSU. He scored seven points per game, third on the team. He made every shot he took from the field for an important 14 points to beat Utah State and had moments of key defensive contributions. He scored a season-high 20 points in an overtime win at Idaho State, then totaled just 17 points over the final 10 games of the season. He finishes with 983 career points.
Keith Dinwiddie Jr.: The hopeful scoring punch with Dinwiddie’s transfer from San Diego State ultimately didn’t come to fruition. He averaged six points per game in 11 starts before being taken out of the rotation altogether. With two seasons of eligibility left, he entered his name in the transfer portal Wednesday.
JJ Louden: Louden, a freshman guard from Indianapolis, entered his name in the transfer portal Tuesday. He appeared in six games, playing seven minutes.
Walk-ons: Big man Sebastian Gahse and guard Abdul-Noor Beyah, neither of whom appeared in any games this season, have entered the transfer portal. Gahse, who came to WSU from Central Wyoming Community College, should have three seasons of eligibility left elsewhere. Beyah should have four seasons left.
The Wildcats enter the offseason set to return nine players, including all five who constituted the starting lineup for the last two-thirds of the season.
“This will be the first offseason we’ve had in a while with some real continuity in our program. We’ve got a lot of returners,” Duft said. “So we’re really excited about the progress we can make in the offseason. That continuity helps you progress through things faster, and that will make it easier to incorporate our new guys.”
Dillon Jones: After averaging 16.7 points, 10.9 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game, and leading the country in defensive rebounding (per game and by percentage), Jones told the Standard-Examiner he’s set on returning to WSU for a fourth season. His versatility continues to grow as his game expands and he’s fifth all-time at WSU in rebounds and steals.
Steven Verplancken Jr.: The Southern Illinois transfer shooting guard doubled up his points-per-game average at SIU to 13.2 in his first season at WSU. He shot 41.7% from 3, putting him in the company with WSU’s all-time best marksmen if he continues that into his senior season.
“Steven has been fairly comfortable as a transfer even from Day 1, kind of what his role would be, so he can just build off that,” Duft said.
KJ Cunningham: The 6-foot-2 guard from Texas will return for his fifth college season. He scored a career-high 6.5 points per game this season and his consistency helped steady WSU during the season. He’s played 107 career games, putting in play Michal Kozak’s all-time WSU mark of 134 games.
“KJ, in a new role, he really established himself as a good player,” Duft said.
Dyson Koehler: Koehler’s return from surgery was much needed and, even without a real offseason, Koehler made clear strides in on-ball defense and averaged 6.4 points and 2.9 rebounds per game playing in the starting wing position.
“How fortunate we are to have him here and how excited we are for his future, because he really came a long way defensively and now he’ll get a real offseason,” Duft said.
Alex Tew: Tew doubled his minutes at center in his second season, shot 55% from the floor and averaged 6.6 points and 3.7 rebounds per game. His plus defense remained consistent while he showed a growing ability to help offensively going into his third season in the program.
Handje Tamba: The redshirt freshman transfer from Tennessee made his college debut as a Wildcat and made huge strides in strength and contributions during the season. He made a clutch bucket and grabbed five rebounds in nine minutes against Utah State. With Tew sidelined in the regular-season finale, Tamba totaled six points and seven rebounds in a road win at Northern Arizona.
Hopes are high that the offseason will bring lots of growth for both Tew and Tamba.
Daniel Rouzan: The freshman forward saw action in 29 games, mostly at center, averaging three points and two rebounds per outing. With a knack for offensive rebounds (27 of his total 52 this season were on the offensive glass), Rouzan rose to the occasion with 12 points and 10 rebounds in a win over Abilene Christian while Jones sat.
Louie Jordan: The 6-foot-8 stretch forward from England got his feet wet in Division I this season as a freshman, appearing in 19 games, knocking down three 3-pointers and grabbing 10 rebounds. Coaches see his potential as a promising prospect.
THE REDSHIRT FRESHMAN
Chris Dockery: Dockery, a 6-foot-6 wing player, redshirted the season to address a minor knee concern. The Las Vegas native — who chose WSU over San Diego State, Nevada and Fresno State — lived in the weight room this season and stands to step into minutes filled by Porter and Ballard.
“He adds a really athletic element, plays really hard. His work ethic is really, really good. He’s very serious about it,” Duft said. “We’re excited about where he’s at.”
The general feeling for WSU’s incoming freshmen is that the Wildcats have added three high-level shooters who have been well-coached and will be sound players on both ends, hopefully ready to contribute immediately in various roles.
Vartianen is signed; the Sarenac cousins will sign in April.
“We’re really excited about the guys we have committed for next year,” Duft said.
Marko Sarenac: The 6-foot-10 forward terminated a contract with KK Spartak in Serbia’s top professional league to play at Weber State.
In the opening round of knockout play during Serbia’s third-place run in the FIBA U18 European Championships, Sarenac totaled 22 points, eight rebounds, four assists, three steals and zero turnovers in 27 minutes, shooting 9 of 14 overall and 4 of 6 from deep. He followed that with a 14-and-11 effort in the next round.
Nemanja Sarenac: The 6-foot-5 shooting guard has played prep academy basketball in New York after coming to the U.S. from Serbia. He committed to WSU over Stanford and BYU. He’s expected to be a major shooting threat.
Viljami Vartianen: The 6-foot-6 guard from Finland is known as a shooter and chose WSU over Bradley, Davidson and UC Santa Barbara.
“Viljami is playing really well and he’s expanding his game. We’re excited about what he’s doing right now,” Duft said. “He’s having to play the point now a lot because their point guard left to go to Sunrise Christian this year and signed with Baylor, and that allowed Viljami to expand his game. And he’s really grown as a defender too, someone who could be a legitimate 3-and-D guy.”
Weber State has one scholarship available and is pursuing transfers, aiming to bring in a dynamic on-ball guard to boost the team’s offensive firepower.