This story is part one of four in a series of Weber State basketball offseason stories, reviewing the season that was and looking ahead to recruiting and next season.(tncms-asset)a953ecaa-6993-11ea-ba81-00163ec2aa77(/tncms-asset)(tncms-asset)123f1f86-6a4e-11ea-8b9b-00163ec2aa77(/tncms-asset)
OGDEN — The 2019-20 basketball season wasn’t what anyone at Weber State wanted.
Not Randy Rahe or any of his players planned to battle through injuries to a 12-20 record, the worst overall mark at WSU in 15 years.
After pausing for a moment — “we’ve been so focused on recruiting and what we need to do” — Rahe spoke to the Standard-Examiner about the season that was.
“It was out of our control, things happened, we dealt with it, and these kids dealt with it as good as you could deal with it,” Rahe said.
It’s the attitude of his players Rahe will remember most about the season which was equal parts admiration for his team’s heart and frustration for its injury luck.
“Injuries derailed everything we were hoping for with lineups and things like that. But the way these guys handled it, with guys coming and going, who’s playing who’s not — all the stuff we had to deal with, they handled it was well as you could handle it,” Rahe said. “Never complained, no excuses, what’ve we got to do to get better, let’s go try to win our next game.”
Among those playing at less than capacity were the team’s two seniors in Jerrick Harding and Cody John. The former went through NBA Draft workouts and felt set to have an MVP season before a broken foot set him back before the season.
Even with everything that followed, Rahe says his team was always locked in at practice — even when practice was nothing but a walk-through of schemes.
“Cody and Jerrick, terrific senior leadership. They wouldn’t let these guys give in. They stayed strong,” Rahe said. “I’m going to remember that part of it as much as anything, how these kids handled the tough situations and how they never faltered or had excuses. I admire the heck out of this team for that.”
How extensive was the derailment of desired lineups and rotations?
After Harding started on the wrong foot, sophomore forward Bouki Diakite took a hit. Diakite, a former four-star recruit who began his career at St. John’s, was a hyper-athletic stretch forward who committed to WSU out of Iowa Western Community College after tearing his ACL as a freshman.
But the outlook was good, surgery successful, recovery progressing — until it wasn’t.
“That one hurt us. He’s exactly what we wanted at that forward spot,” Rahe said. “He was a highly recruited kid, he was going to make a total recovery from the ACL and getting ready to go, and then bang, another setback. We had him in mind to be a starter.”
But every team has a setback or two, and WSU thought Harding could play into shape heading into conference season and the team could overcome Diakite’s likely unavailability.
Key to the latter issue was sophomore forward Donatas Kupsas, a tough rebounder with a soft shooting touch who was rounding into form.
But Kupsas tore his ACL in the season’s second game.
“He had a great summer and was ready to roll. I was seriously looking at, in small lineups, playing Donatas and Bouki together,” Rahe said. “I was excited about the possibilities of that, and then they both got hurt.”
Harding appeared to be picking up steam, scoring 36 points in an early December win at Utah Valley. But, at the same time, sophomore center Dima Zdor needed some time off the floor.
That meant moving Pitt transfer and junior wing player Kham Davis to forward and forward Michal Kozak to center — much smaller in stretches than Weber ever wanted to play and taking Davis, the team’s best perimeter defender, off the perimeter.
Later that month, Weber gave eventual league champion Eastern Washington all it could handle in the conference opener in Ogden — but, in the final minute, Harding severely sprained his ankle and Davis suffered a dislocated kneecap in a 79-77 loss.
The resulting effects of working to return to the court caused Harding to play the rest of the season with shin splints and an ailing back. After returning, Davis played the rest of the season with a soft brace strapped tightly around his knee to prevent a future slip of the kneecap — something that worked most of the time, but not all the time, and somewhat hindered his mobility.
Still, Rahe felt he’d helped his team get as much down time between games as possible and, after starting 2-6 in league play, the Wildcats appeared to be turning a corner.
After losing in the last seconds to Montana State, the Wildcats took down Montana at home and clawed to a 6-7 conference mark.
“Jerrick was starting to feel better, Kham was feeling better, Cody was feeling a little bit better, Dima was out for a while and then he came back — we mostly put together the lineup I wanted to have and we were feeling OK, and we won four out of five,” Rahe said. “And I was like ‘OK, if we can just stay healthy, we can make a push.’
“And the next weekend, what do we do? We go to Montana and Jerrick has an injury setback and doesn’t play. Kham has a setback in the Montana game and Cody gets banged up during the game.”
It was an extra layer of injury Rahe says he’s never faced before.
“The rest of the season, it was just trying to hold it together. We saw that short sample size what this team could do, but then we just ... that’s where it really got frustrating,” Rahe said.
During the healthiest stretch of conference play, Harding erupted for 25 points in a half and 44 in a game to beat Sacramento State, set a new Dee Events Center scoring record and simultaneously become the program’s career all-time scoring leader. But one week later at Montana, he was so hobbled he couldn’t play and had to miss another game.
“To Jerrick’s credit, the stuff he went through this year was not fair ... if you compare it to film from last year ... it wasn’t his fault. He had to muster up everything he had to score for us because he had to score,” Rahe said.
“I’ve been doing this 14 years here and I’ve never had a year like this as far as dealing with injuries. They started in the summer and you usually get through that, but they continued through the season and we never had a break where we could get a full, healthy team together. And that part was frustrating because, in our minds, had we put the healthy, full team out there, there’s no question we’d have been playing at the top of the conference.”