OGDEN — It’s been 15 years since Weber State men’s basketball has experienced the scale of roster change the Wildcats are undergoing right now.
When Randy Rahe was hired, he entered the 2006-07 season with two returning players. Of 11 players who scored points in the previous season, three were seniors, two were returning and six non-seniors did not stay on the team.
Entering the 2020-21 season, three of 13 players to score were seniors (one a walk-on), while about five will return and about five will not.
Sophomores Israel Barnes and Bouki Diakite, and freshman Austin Galuppo, have already entered the transfer portal.
In Rahe’s first season, he returned about 25% of WSU’s scoring from the previous season. Going into 2020-21, the Wildcats will return between 37% and 42% of their scoring.
The similarities are easy to draw. The 2005-06 Wildcats went 10-17 (.370), including 4-10 (.286) in conference play. In 2019-20, WSU was 12-20 (.375) with an 8-12 (.400) conference mark.
Nobody on campus or in the stands wants that to continue, least of all Randy Rahe. The 14-year veteran, whose every win adds to a record total in Big Sky history, is recruiting like it’s 2006 when he needed instant-impact additions up and down the roster.
The experienced WSU news consumer might recognize discussion about age from recent basketball seasons. Some fans are loathe to hear the word “young.”
But in the recently concluded 2019-20 campaign, WSU rostered five upperclassmen (seniors or juniors), including walk-on Brenden Morris. The 10 other Big Sky programs averaged 7.2 upperclassmen; six teams had eight or more, three had nine or more.
That’s a primary focus for Rahe and his coaching staff.
“We’re going to, obviously, bring in quite a few guys and one of our top goals is to get older,” Rahe told the Standard-Examiner. “Our league has gone to teams recruiting very few freshmen. We have recruited freshmen but two years ago, we lost our recruiting class due to a bunch of things and that pushed us to being young. We’ve just been a bit too young the past couple years.”
In specific terms, that means recruiting graduate transfers, other Division I transfers and junior college players — likely exclusively.
“I’m excited about the prospects of it all. We’re going to be able to accomplish what we want to accomplish,” Rahe said.
Even as recently as four seasons ago, the more junior college players you recruited, the more your class turned into a high-risk, quick-fix gamble. Good players were available, but coaches like Rahe recruited them sparingly and mostly stayed away. The prevailing thought was there was a reason those players were in junior college.
“There’s a lot of reasons why kids are in junior college now,” Rahe said. “A lot more kids are going there because, maybe there’s still some academic things to work out, but a lot of them didn’t get recruited at the level they wanted to out of high school so they go to junior college for a year or two to get re-recruited. So the market for junior college kids has changed.”
In that same time frame, transferring within Division I has changed drastically. No longer can coaches block players from leaving by refusing to release them from scholarships, or block them from transferring to large swaths of the countryside. The transfer portal allows for a more free movement of players between schools, giving athletes more control over their playing careers in the face of coaching changes or any other circumstance.
“It used to be, the stigma was, there’s something wrong with junior college kids — academically, character-wise. There’s something wrong with a transfer kid, he must be a knucklehead or there’s an issue,” Rahe explained. “But that’s not the case anymore.”
Rahe said the Division I transfer pool might have had around 300 players as recently as three years ago, where now it will easily eclipse 1,000, possibly 1,200 players.
Such transfers are usually about playing time or coaching changes.
“We’ve found the kids we’re recruiting in both those areas are great kids, highly motivated kids, and have a great reason for why they want to move on,” Rahe said. “It’s continuing to change each year. I’m not saying we’re never going to recruit a freshman again, but for where we’re at right now, we need to get older. And then we’ll balance out our classes from there.”
Of six or so available scholarships, one was claimed March 13 when junior college guard Zahir Porter committed to Weber State.
From there, it’s reasonable to expect a mostly even mixture of graduate transfers, other Division I transfers and junior college signees to claim the remaining scholarships.
How that happens will look different this offseason. Due to the novel coronavirus labeled COVID-19 spreading into a pandemic, the NCAA has barred in-person recruiting until at least April 15. So it’s phone calls and more phone calls until then.
Once, a coach was overheard to say the quantity of upperclassmen on Montana’s 2018-19 team (26-9, 16-4 Big Sky) — five seniors, two juniors — was probably worth at least five wins in experience alone. The sixth-most experienced team in the country ended its season 9-2 in games decided by six points or less, with one of those losses coming in overtime.
So experience and age can go a long way in college basketball, especially in mid-major country. But that’s just part of the equation.
In Rahe’s first 13 seasons, WSU finished ranked in the top 117 nationally (the top third of all Division I teams) in 3-point shooting percentage 10 times. Five times, Weber State finished 11th or better nationally. In down years, it was never lower than 141st.
In the 2019-20 season, the Wildcats shot 30.2% from the 3-point line, good for 317th.
“One of the things we really have to address is our shooting ability. Obviously, that was something we struggled with this year,” Rahe said. “We’re looking for guys who can shoot.”
From there, Rahe said he’s looking for compositional balance: enough shooting, enough playmaking, enough length and athleticism to be “really good” defensively.
“You want to have enough shooting ... and offensively have enough playmakers that we can get the floor spread,” he said.
The 2020-21 season represents a reset of sorts, given the roster overhaul and the fact that Jerrick Harding, one of the best scorers to put on a Weber State uniform, is out of eligibility.
“You’re not going to replace Jerrick Harding,” Rahe said. “We’re probably not going to get a guy who’s going to be the new career leading scorer. And we don’t have to. We just have to assemble a lot of good basketball players. You’re not going to do it by finding one guy, you do it as a team.
“You don’t necessarily have a superstar player but a lot of good players ... when you do that, then somebody does usually jump up and become the guy,” he continued. “So that’s our whole goal, get good players, a team that fits, good people. I have no doubt in my mind we’re going to put together a really good basketball team next year and be playing at the top of our conference.”
Rahe has continually praised Harding and fellow senior Cody John for their work ethic and the overwhelming example they showed of doing whatever it takes between games to get on the floor come game time, no matter what injuries might be in play and no matter how discouragingly the season developed.
He says players like Michal Kozak, Kham Davis and Tim Fuller will be key in setting the tone, example-wise, with a new roster.
“The older guys, they know what we’re about here. We’re going to have a bunch of new guys, but for those guys to have gone through something like that, I think it makes them stronger and to understand how to develop that attitude and keep it to be successful,” Rahe said. “I think those guys will do that for us, will carry that on.”