When Weber State men’s basketball takes the court at Vivint Arena on Wednesday to face BYU, it won’t be the first time WSU’s new point guard Isiah Brown has played there.
The Seattle native by way of Anchorage, Alaska, helped make happy memories for Northwestern University and its fans on that floor in Salt Lake City more than three years ago.
Brown averaged 6.3 points per game in 14.8 minutes off the bench for Northwestern as a freshman. During that 2016-17 season, the Wildcats reached 18-4 and were ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 for only the second time in almost 40 years.
At 23-11, Northwestern and its fans heard something for the very first time on a mid-March Sunday: the team’s name was called during selection proceedings, earning an at-large bid and making the NCAA Tournament for the first time.
The draw: an 8-seed to face 9-seed Vanderbilt at Vivint Arena. Northwestern kept history going by claiming a 68-66 win, advancing to play 1-seed Gonzaga.
The Wildcats lost in the second round 79-73, a game marred by a missed goaltending call down the stretch when GU’s Zach Collins blocked a Dererk Pardon dunk attempt by sticking his hand through the cylinder.
It’s easily the most beloved, successful team in Northwestern history.
“Definitely great memories all through that arena,” Brown said. “The postgame celebration in the locker room, and the postgame after the loss and the finality of it all, I’ve gone through every up-and-down emotion in that place. So it’s definitely cool to go back, it will bring back some good memories.”
Brown said his experience that season helps drive him, and is something he tries to add into everything Weber State does this season.
“The intensity level, the sense of urgency ... it’s a much different approach than what you normally have in the regular season,” Brown said. “If we can play like that every game during the regular season, we’re going to put ourselves in a pretty good spot to get there.”
That, and WSU’s series split at Portland State over the weekend, go together, Brown says. Weber State never trailed and won its first game against PSU by 28, then lost the second game by two points after erasing a 17-point deficit.
“You’ll never be able to re-create what it’s like to play in the NCAA Tournament, but from a mindset perspective ... we didn’t have the right sense of urgency to start that (second) game,” Brown said. “Learning how to approach games, how we want to come out and play every night, and represent ourselves. I think we had a little wake-up call that will be good for us. We’ll learn from it and take that into the rest of the games.”
Gonzaga and Vanderbilt had good traveling parties to Salt Lake City, as did Northwestern, making for a lively atmosphere that will be much different Wednesday due to the pandemic. The Utah Jazz sold a limited number of tickets through each school for the game but by and large, the arena will be empty when Weber State and BYU tip off.
“We’ve kind of prepared to play in relatively empty gyms. Fans always add to the atmosphere and can impact the game, I love playing in front of fans ... any fans we can get, I’m excited about, but as long as we’re getting to play games, I’m good with whatever,” Brown said. “Everything between the lines is the most important thing.”
Wednesday’s matchup will be Weber State’s fifth game of the season and, for now, represents WSU’s final nonconference matchup.
Due to differences in conference schedules, BYU will be playing in its 10th game. The Cougars are 8-2 with key wins over San Diego State, Utah and Utah State. BYU lost by four at home to Boise State, a team that beat Weber by 11 in Boise.
A group named All Day Athletes counts the number of players from The Netherlands playing college basketball in the United States at about 35. Two of them are big men for each team Wednesday: Weber State’s David Nzekwesi and BYU’s Matt Haarms.
Sophomore guard Spencer Johnson is on his fourth college basketball team and is increasingly becoming a part of BYU’s success.
After signing with Weber State and serving a mission, Johnson returned for the 2018-19 season before deciding just two months in to leave WSU. He transferred to Utah Valley, where he continued to redshirt but, after coach Mark Pope was hired away from UVU to BYU, Johnson moved on to play as a redshirt freshman at Salt Lake Community College last season before signing with BYU.
Johnson posted season highs of 16 points and 27 minutes in a win over Utah and has become a 20-minutes-per-night player in Pope’s rotation. He’s 10 of 21 (47.6%) from the 3-point line.
HOW TO WATCH
Wednesday’s matchup tips at 5 p.m.
BYUtv will air the game broadcast, also available on streaming devices via the BYUtv app or online at byutv.org. Weber State’s radio call with Steve Klauke will air at 103.1 FM The Wave, and BYU’s with Greg Wrubell on KSL Newsradio 102.7 FM/1160 AM.