As he addressed his players for the first time this school year, Weber State coach Randy Rahe couldn't shake the feeling someone was missing.
College Hoops Countdown, No. 24: Big Sky
•New stars must emerge for Weber State to succeed without Damian Lillard
• Big Sky Capsule Preview: Montana remains the favorite despite Will Cherry's injury
For more news on the Big Sky, visit Rivals.com
He texted former Wildcats star Damian Lillard to tell the Portland Trail Blazers first-round pick how strange it was not seeing his face during a team meeting.
"I went into the whole deal about how proud I was of him and how much he meant to the program," Rahe said. "I got a little sentimental and he got a little sentimental. It brought tears to my eyes. I love that kid to death. It was a nice exchange, I'll leave it at that."
If Rahe felt Lillard's absence during a late-August team meeting, it certainly won't get any easier not having him once the season actually starts. Few players across the nation were more important to their programs last year than Lillard, who led an injury-plagued Weber State team to 25 wins by averaging an efficient 24.5 points per game and dishing out more than twice as many assists as turnovers.
Weber State does not have another NBA lottery pick on its roster next season to duplicate Lillard's production by himself, but the Wildcats do bring back enough talent to challenge Big Sky favorite Montana if they can forge a new identity. Instead of relying on a star player to be their catalyst on offense, they'll have to try to beat teams with a balanced inside-outside attack featuring onetime complementary players itching to shoulder a greater load.
Senior guard Scott Bamforth, Weber State's leading returning scorer, is a deadly outside shooter capable of punishing any opponent that leaves him free behind the arc. Junior center Kyle Tresnak, the league's best returning big man, runs the floor well and scores over either shoulder with his back to the basket. And sweet-shooting forward Byron Fulton and high-scoring Cal State Monterey Bay transfer Davion Berry both appear ready to blossom as juniors.
"We're excited about this group," Rahe said. "It will be a little bit different because Damian had to score so many points for us last year to have a chance, especially because of all the injuries we had during conference. Now we'll have a team where we feel like we can be more balanced and have a lot of guys contribute."
The key to Weber State's season may be finding a point guard capable of not only sharing some of the scoring burden but also setting up his teammates.
The safer option is probably Jordan Richardson, a steady 6-foot-1 junior who started 14 games last season as a sophomore to allow Lillard to play off the ball at times. The more intriguing option is Gelaun Wheelwright, an electric 6-foot-1 sophomore whose jump shot and decision-making aren't as polished as Richardson but whose first step to the basket may even be quicker than Lillard's.
An immature freshman who had a habit of disengaging on the court if things weren't going his way when he arrived at Weber State, Wheelwright benefited from tough love from Rahe last season and from watching Lillard's demeanor and work ethic up close. Wheelwright has put on 10 to 15 pounds of muscle over the offseason and has gradually gained the confidence of the coaching staff.
"There's no question he's really talented," Rahe said. "It's maturity and the toughness that were the issues. We've been harping on him since day one, and it's starting to come.
"He had a tendency to put his head down. If things weren't going great, he pouted or he wouldn't play hard. A lot of those areas, we addressed them really hard and he started to figure it out. Toward the second half of last season, his head wouldn't go down. If he made a mistake, he was hustling back trying to make a play."
Since Wheelwright was an under-the-radar California recruit with an ability to get to the rim at will, it's only natural that he has drawn some comparisons to a young Lillard. Rahe acknowledges they're "similar in some areas," but he he has spoken to Wheelwright about not putting pressure on himself to be another Lillard.
The reality is no one Weber State player can do that, yet there's no reason a team that returns five of its top eight players from last year can't be just as successful collectively without him.
In Lillard's four years on campus, the Wildcats contended for the Big Sky title each season but never reached the NCAA tournament. In year one without him, they still have the best chance of any Big Sky program to challenge a Montana team that won the regular season and conference tournament title last March and returns standouts Will Cherry and Kareem Jamar.
"Montana's very, very good, but I think we can be really competitive," Rahe said. "We've got some talent. It's just going to be more of a team way to go about it."
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