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Weber State basketball works on ‘competitive stamina’ as Big Sky-Summit Challenge games arrive

By BRETT HEIN - Standard-Examiner | Jan 2, 2024

Jacinthe Leblanc, for Weber State Athletics

Weber State's Dillon Jones (2) gestures during a huddle on Friday, Nov. 17, 2023, at the Atlantic Slam in Moncton, New Brunswick.

OGDEN — A fan couldn’t ask for a better start to Big Sky Conference play for Weber State men’s basketball.

The Wildcats beat Montana and Montana State by a combined 52 points to reach 2-0 on the early league ledger.

Despite an odd letdown game at Utah Valley and allowing leads to falter twice in the Atlantic Slam, WSU is ranked 83rd in the NCAA’s NET system and 94th by Ken Pomeroy’s formula. Weber rose 40 spots with the two league wins.

The nature of the early records — 9-4 overall, with a great win at Saint Mary’s and a solid win over Yale, and 2-0 in Big Sky play with two dominant victories — Weber State’s nod in preseason polls, and the team’s apparent talent seem to again have the Wildcats in a position where wins are somewhat expected.

That’s not exclusively an external expectation, either.

“I didn’t come back to school for no other reason but to win a championship, you know? And it’s a good thing for me to just say it and all but then, in these moments, you have to actually go out there and do it,” WSU star forward Dillon Jones said.

The program has recently been in the situation Weber State is again trying to create as it aims to win the league title for the first time since 2016 and reach the Big Sky tournament title game for the first time since 2017.


Dillon Jones is the Big Sky’s player of the week for the 12th time in his career and fourth time this season after his week helping lead WSU to a 2-0 start in league play.

Jones averaged 22 points, nine rebounds, 5.5 assists and 2.5 steals per game last week, including tying his career-high with 29 points against Montana State.

For the season, Jones leads the Big Sky by averaging 18.5 points, 10.6 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game. He is the only player in Division I men’s basketball to lead his conference in those three stats.

In 2018, the Wildcats started Big Sky play 12-2 before losing two games in a homestand, getting blasted at Montana and losing by 25 in the first round of the conference tournament.

In 2019, WSU was 7-1 early in league play but finished 11-9 and got unceremoniously dumped by 29 points against Montana in the tournament semifinals.

In 2021, Weber went 12-3 in league play and lost in the quarterfinals to Montana for a one-and-done postseason.

In 2022, the Wildcats started 11-1 in their Big Sky schedule (and were 18-5 overall) but finished 13-7 and couldn’t quite get the mojo back, losing a close semifinal to Montana State.

“The team when we started 11-1, like, even though we did that, I didn’t have like crazy urgency, if that makes sense,” Jones said. “But as you get older, as you get more thirsty, more hungry, you know how important each game is in conference play.”

There are still 18 regular-season games to go, starting with this week’s Big Sky-Summit Challenge matchups. It’s a long haul to even get to the point where WSU could possibly be 7-1 or 11-1 again. But the Wildcats look around, see what they’ve got and how they’re playing, and understand their potential.

Duft said changes to offseason work and more contributed to what he characterized as a strong finish last season (16-8 after a 2-7 start). WSU is currently 25-12 since beginning last season’s turnaround, including a 14-6 mark in conference play.

Changing past trends, learning from those experiences and playing to full potential comes down to mental focus.

“We’re going to go out and prepare like crazy and get ready to go play well every night,” WSU head coach Eric Duft said. “We talk about competitive stamina a lot. Great players, great programs are able to compete at a high level night in and night out.”

While such focus and stamina may not lead to perfection, Jones says that’s the singular goal for each game.

“That’s what I told the team before we started. The only goal here is to go 18-0, and the way you do that is to go 1-0 in each game. It’s about the small things,” Jones said. “And I think I learned that from past experiences. That year (2021-22), specifically, was a roller coaster. And like you should, you learn from it. You can’t sit up here and pout about it.

“And not just me — Alex (Tew), Dyson (Koehler) and KJ (Cunningham), those guys were on that team. It hurts, honestly, so you have to channel that energy into the guys who don’t know. But those guys, we play a lot, we spearhead it, we already know what time it is. You add up those small wins, you’ll be right where you want to be.”


Conference play pauses for the first annual Big Sky-Summit Challenge. Weber State’s home draw comes at 7 p.m. Wednesday, hosting South Dakota State (7-7).

The Jackrabbits, preseason Summit League favorites, haven’t played to the level they probably expected in nonconference play while playing some tough competition. But, after disappointing losses (by 13 to Wyoming and 19 to Norfolk State), SDSU bounced back for a dominant win over North Dakota to open conference play on Dec. 31.

But South Dakota State was picked to win the Summit League for a reason and the talent is there, starting with junior guard Zeke Mayo. He scored 18.2 points per game last season, is at 17.6 this season, and he and WSU’s Jones will have press-row tables filled with NBA scouts.

Mayo has a season-high of 28 points and, in games against opponents most similar to Weber State (a two-point neutral win over George Mason and a 10-point road win at Wichita State), Mayo scored 22 and 25 points.

SDSU has size inside, with forwards Kyle William (12 ppg) and Luke Appel (11 ppg) joining 7-foot Wyoming transfer Nate Barnhart in the starting lineup. That means they typically defend the paint well, which bodes well for them with Weber State driving and dominating the paint in its first two Big Sky games.

SDSU shoots the 3 frequently (42.8% of field goal attempts) and well (34.2% as a team) but has struggled in both those areas defensively.

WSU is 2-1 all-time in the series, winning both games played in Ogden. Ken Pomeroy’s numbers favor Weber State by eight points at 77% probability.

Tony Parks and Joe Cravens have the video call on ESPN+, with Steve Klauke and David Patten on the radio at 103.1 FM.


Oral Roberts (6-7) is not quite the team that went 30-5 last season and 18-0 in the Summit League after losing Max Abmas and Connor Vanover. But 6-foot-1 guard Issac McBride (18.9 ppg) and 6-foot-5 Kareem Thompson (13.1 ppg, 44.9% from 3) are seniors who return from that team.

They’re joined by 6-foot-4 swingman Jailen Bedford, a junior college transfer averaging 13.8 points per game and shooting 39.7% from 3.

Like SDSU, the Golden Eagles shoot the 3 often and well (38% as a team), but don’t defend it particularly well. ORU takes care of the ball offensively but doesn’t rebound well.

Oral Roberts did take Kansas State to overtime in a loss but has just three Division I wins so far. One of those was winning at Denver in overtime to start 1-1 in league play.

In games against opponents most similar to Weber State, Oral Roberts lost by 15 at Missouri State and 21 at Oklahoma State.

But, the Eagles welcome the Wildcats to Tulsa, Oklahoma, as holders of one of the nation’s longest home winning streak at 21 games. ORU plays at Montana State on Wednesday before welcoming WSU on Saturday.

WSU is 5-2 in the all-time series, including 1-0 in Tulsa — a 2013 road win in the final year of BracketBusters matchups. Pomeroy’s numbers favor Weber State by three points at 63% probability. It will be WSU’s first road game in three weeks.

The game is scheduled for 7 p.m. CST/6 p.m. MST and will air nationally on CBS Sports Network.


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