- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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It's college basketball preview season, and you know what that means: tons of preseason info to get you primed for 2013-14. But what do you really need to know? Each day for the next month, we'll highlight the most important, interesting or just plain amusing thing each conference has to offer this season — from great teams to thrilling players to wild fans and anything in between. Today: Weber State, and Damian who?
The 2012-13 NBA Rookie of the Year went from Weber State to the National Basketball Association for very good reasons. In 2011-12, Damian Lillard, to that point a relatively unheralded
seniorredshirt junior playing for a small mid-major program in Ogden, Utah, touched the ball on nearly a third of his team's possessions. Despite that burden, he posted a 124.4 offensive rating, the highest of any player with a usage rate above 28 percent, per Ken Pomeroy -- higher even than All-American Doug McDermott, who consumed fewer of his team's trips. Lillard's late-blooming offensive brilliance canceled out every concern NBA scouts had about Big Sky competition. That summer, the Portland Trail Blazers made him the sixth overall pick in the 2012 NBA Draft.
Back in Ogden, it was fair to expect Weber State to fade away. Frankly, the Wildcats were never in collective focus anyway -- they lost to all three (at Saint Mary's, at BYU, at Cal) of their significant nonconference opponents, fell short in OT in the Big Sky title game, and finished ranked No. 148 in the country in Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency. For a team with a future NBA Rookie of the Year running the show, Weber State flew way under the radar. And with Lillard gone, surely the opportunity was lost.
Which brings us to the big, predictably introduced reveal: Weber State didn't get worse. It got better. Randy Rahe's team won four more games (30-7) than in 2011-12. Its defense got drastically better, zooming from 258th in the country to 99th. That would have been the biggest surprise, but for this: The Wildcats' offense didn't regress a bit. Weber State posted the fourth-highest effective field goal percentage in the country (56.0), thanks in large part to lights-out, 45.6 percent-from-3 shooting from senior guard Scott Bamforth. The Wildcats finished No. 76 in Pomeroy's efficiency rankings. They weren't just better. They were much better.
They also missed the tournament. Again. Thanks to another close Big Sky loss, and no nonconference results, again.
Which is precisely why Weber State offers such an interesting watch for the season to come. Just as the Wildcats had to overcome the loss of their ball-dominating, NBA-ready point guard a year prior, this summer they're reconfiguring without Bamforth, one of the best pure shooters in the college game, and reliable senior forward Frank Otis, arguably the team's best rebounder. But Davion Berry, who shot 41.4 percent from 3 last season in his own right, and center Kyle Tresnak, a shot-blocker and rebounder who by now has a well-rounded interior game, are both back. So is freshman Joel Bolomboy, the 2012-13 Big Sky Newcomer of the Year.
In other words, this is the season Weber State might finally break through -- just 17 months after waving farewell to one of the best young players in the NBA. I'm pretty sure that's not how it's supposed to work. But Weber State just keeps getting better.