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OGDEN — First year head coach Eric Duft earned his first (unofficial) win in his first game as the Weber State Wildcats knocked off Division II opponent Adams State 88-76.
The head coach mantle has now officially transferred from longtime coach Randy Rahe to Duft as he looks to lead the Wildcats to a successful season and a trip to the NCAA Tournament in March. It was fans' first look at a team under new management; and while it wasn't what many may have hoped for, the Wildcats took care of business against a formidable foe from nearby Colorado.
Weber State was led in scoring by sophomore forward Dillon Jones, who tallied 20 points and also led the team 15 rebounds. He was three assists shy of a triple-double and much of the success of the team seemed to go through Jones. Five Wildcats scored in double figures, and eight of the nine players that saw action on the floor scored at least one bucket.
The Wildcats look to replicate last year's success of a team that finished 21-12 but fell in the semifinals of the Big Sky conference tournament to eventual champion Montana State. As this season kicks off, here are some takeaways from Wednesday night's game.
Of the 16 players listed on this year's official roster, 11 of are new. The five returners are Jones, Zahir Porter, KJ Cunningham, Alex Tew and Dyson Koehler. Not only will the team be led by a new coach but that's a lot of new faces that will require time to gel.
At times on Wednesday against Adams State, the players seemed out of sync, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. Slip-ups in assignments and faulty communication led to more open looks for the Grizzlies than the head coach might like to see. Though the players have had all summer and fall to work with each other, certain aspects of team chemistry don't develop until the players experience live action against someone other than themselves.
The roster contains six freshmen, but only three of them saw action in this exhibition game. Handje Tamba, a 6-foot-11 redshirt freshman who transferred from Tennessee, will most likely make the biggest impact of the young players since he and sophomore Alex Tew are the only two centers listed on the roster.
While nothing is set in stone, the starting lineup from Wednesday's game could be a preview of a typical lineup during the course of the season. Duft started three guards in Porter, Cunningham and San Diego State transfer Keith Dinwiddie Jr., Jones as a forward and Tamba as the big center. First off the bench was senior guard Junior Ballard, followed by Southern Illinois transfer Steven Verplancken Jr.
Offense needs time
Though 88 points is certainly nothing to sneeze at, it took some time for Weber State to break through on the offensive side of the ball. The Wildcats started out slow and made the first half a lot closer than many would have liked.
From a team that likes to shoot the 3-point shot, the Wildcats didn't knock down their first triple until halfway through the first half on a knockdown corner attempt by Cunningham. The Wildcats shot just 34.4% from 3 for the game and 43.1% overall. While the team did shoot 36 free throws and made 27, a team can't always rely on foul shots to win games.
Weber State excels at moving the ball around, as several players got involved on the offensive end. There were times, however, that guys tried to do too much on their own. A big reason for the lower shooting percentage was due to poor shot decisions. That's something that should come throughout the season as players learn to trust each other more — then the offense will flourish.
The success of the offense will go as far as the guards will carry it. The three starting guards combined for 35 points, and the two guards who came off the bench pitched in 19 points, as well; the guards made up 61.3% of the offensive output for the game.
Tamba and the bigs are relatively young, both in age and experience. There may be growing pains as they find their way in the team's plan, which means the team will likely rely on the small guys for much of the season.
Lineups and finding out what works
Duft subbed early and often throughout the exhibition game. He's seen how his players do in practice but going against an opposing team is a different beast. Of the nine players who saw action, three of them averaged over 30 minutes — but everyone's time on the court came with varying lineups.
At one point during the game, Weber State went small as their tallest man on the court was Jones and Porter, both of whom are listed at 6-foot-6. That particular lineup didn't go too well as the Wildcats' largest lead of 20 was cut down around the midpoint of the second half. Duft and his staff noticed and it wasn't long before Tamba and 6-foot-8 freshman Louie Jordan found themselves on the court.
While the overall size on the court for the Wildcats affected certain aspects of the game, team chemistry didn't suffer as much. Blending a team is a season-long endeavor, but no matter who was on the floor, the ball moved around and the players seemed confident in each other's abilities.
The goal will be for that chemistry to improve throughout the year, especially as Weber State plays more difficult opponents.