OGDEN — Whether spoken or unspoken, there’s an undeniable tie that brings Weber State’s 2020-21 men’s basketball team together.
Through lack of opportunity, the feeling of being overlooked or undervalued, or previous failures, each of this year’s Wildcats have a bone to pick.
Isiah Brown texted the sentiment to Dontay Bassett and Tavian Percy as soon as they were signed to WSU: it’s time to prove ourselves.
“Collectively, we just have a chip on our shoulder,” Brown said. “(Coach Randy Rahe) recruited guys with that chip. We do have something to prove, absolutely, both individually and collectively. And I love that. Our practices are energetic and fiery, we go at it. We’ve got guys who feel like they haven’t necessarily been able to put their best foot forward.”
After being the best prep player in Washington by scoring 33.8 points per game his senior year, Brown started his college career at Northwestern and played a solid bench role for a team that ended the Wildcats’ decades-long NCAA Tournament drought.
His minutes and role were reduced the next year, so he transferred to Grand Canyon, where he played last season — shuffled in and out of the starting lineup, moved on and off the ball. Then, GCU fired head coach Dan Majerle so, with a degree in hand, Brown decided his best option to move on as a graduate transfer.
He quickly found a marriage between he, Rahe and Weber State would provide him the best opportunity to display his strengths and bring together everything he’s experienced in college. Brown feels he has what he needs to prove he’s more than a middling role player.
Bassett and Percy are in similar situations. Bassett, a senior, played in every game as a sophomore at Florida, contributing 11 minutes per game off the bench, but his minutes fell as a junior. Percy, a junior from New Mexico, was biding his time behind upperclassmen until it became apparent a transfer might give him new life.
“I put that pressure on myself because I know I have a lot to prove and a lot to bring to the game, and I wasn’t able to do it in the past to the best of my ability,” Bassett said. “So now I have this opportunity, the ball is in my court. The work I’ve put in and the time I’ve put in to the game of basketball is going to pay off this year.
“My expectation is to give it my all every night because this game is very short-lived, in the grand aspect of things. It comes and goes very quickly.”
Percy felt a new focus as soon as he stepped on campus.
“It feels great having multiple coaches actually care and work with you, and I can feel the progress,” said Percy, an ultra-bouncy wing player who has sights on being the team’s best defender. “It feels good that I’m actually wanted and needed, rather than someone who’s just there.”
David Nzekwesi, a junior big man from Denver, wanted a program that would push him forward, and he’s noticeably worked into better shape. The coach who recruited Seikou Sisoho Jawara to Loyola Marymount was fired after his first season there, and Zahir Porter, Darweshi Hunter and Cody Carlson naturally bring the edge that comes with transferring from a junior college or Division II school.
And, Brown points out, many have written off the four returners — KJ Cunningham, Kham Davis, Michal Kozak and Donatas Kupsas — after last year’s 12-20 campaign.
Kupsas, a sophomore, played just 34 minutes last season, showing signs of improved rebounding and shooting before tearing his ACL early in the second game. Hailed as a versatile defender and rebounder by Rahe, Kupsas has yet to really have a chance to prove it.
“We all have a chip on our shoulder. We didn’t have a great season last year and didn’t get the results we wanted,” Kozak said. “The newcomers — IB, Dontay, TP — they’re coming here with a clear goal, a winner’s mentality. ... We have guys who have been through it.”
Has all that come together during the Summer of COVID, when routines were disrupted and, with serious health concerns in the community, players wondered if a season would even happen? When players’ social lives screeched to a halt and their connection to the rest of campus was all but cut off, and their life literally became eating, drinking and sleeping basketball?
Percy believes so.
“We have all the pieces we need, everybody’s buying in, everybody’s playing for each other,” Percy said.
Brown sees it as his responsibility to bring it together. He speaks often about being the quarterback his team needs at all times — orchestrating offensive and defensive efforts, knowing when his team needs him to get buckets or to create for someone else with a hot hand.
“It’s finding the opportunity to display all of that and put everything I could do out there — in the pick and roll, shooting the ball, creating opportunities for my teammates, have the ball and be a playmaker and a decision-maker, finding guys in places to score. All the stuff I’ve worked on, being able to come out in a game and feel like that’s what my job is, my responsibility is to my team is to play that way, that’s an opportunity I felt like I had here,” Brown said.
“That was something I established with coach Rahe early on, the type of guy he was looking for was the exact situation I was looking for. ... The more I’ve been here, the more I’m assured by that, this is where I was supposed to be. So I’m excited. I feel like I’m at the right place at the right time, and ready to go.”