Weber State has been picked by both Big Sky coaches and media to defend its conference championship, and there is a lot to like about the Wildcats' chances in doing so.
Joel Bolomboy (defensive player of the year) and Kyndahl Hill comprise an athletic, long, and powerful frontcourt. Jeremy Senglin (freshman of the year) and Richaud Gittens have ridiculous skill and athleticism. Center James Hajek represents the glue guy who leads the locker room and does everything other than score to lead the team. This may be the most purely athletic team Weber State has ever had from top to bottom.
But plenty of questions persist after the Wildcats lost three key playmakers. The obvious graduation is that of Davion Berry, Big Sky MVP. Point guard Jordan Richardson is also graduated after setting Weber's all-time record for games played. He's been a rock in the backcourt forever. Lastly, old-school post player Kyle Tresnak is gone. Tresnak posted a career-high 27 points to spur Weber on to its NCAA tournament bid last season.
So with the season under way today (the Big Sky tips off the season for the entire nation at 11 a.m. ET with Eastern Washington hosting Texas Southern, an 8 a.m. local tip!), what newcomers can help pick up the slack and keep Weber at the top?
I considered this question while watching Weber's public scrimmage and two exhibition games against Saint Katherine and Western State, and have the following observations:
CHRIS GOLDEN, a junior college transfer from Otero JC in Colorado, is clearly the best newcomer of the bunch and is the best candidate to help replace Berry's scoring -- and I think he can do it. His stroke is smooth and confident, and he had zero hesitation to play his game. The 6-foot-2 shooting guard looked like he'd been on the team for two years already. He shot 9-of-18 from the floor, including 5-of-11 from deep, in the two exhibition games, leading Weber in scoring with 16 points in the first game against Saint Katherine.
JAELYN JOHNSON-COSTON joins Golden as Weber's other JC transfer, from Monroe CC in New York. The 6-foot-6 small forward has a wider-shouldered, athletic frame for the position and showed a knack for rebounding, nabbing four rebounds in his first 10 minutes of competition as a Wildcat. He doesn't appear to be a big shooting threat on offense -- if he scores, it will likely be on offensive putbacks or weak-side cuts. His rebounding could be vital.
HAYDEN HUNTER is a sub-6-foot freshman point guard from Texas who got backup PG reps in both exhibitions. Frankly, he looked skittish and loose with the ball often, but began to calm down in the second exhibition. He logged 19 and 23 minutes respectively in the exhibitions, and Randy Rahe seems set on using Hunter as his backup PG. If he can be responsible with the ball, that will be all Weber will ask of him. Hunter attempted just three field goals in the 42 exhibition minutes he logged.
Those three newcomers looked to be clear rotation players according to Rahe's minute distribution. Rahe looks content to try an eight player rotation:
Starters: Senglin, Golden, Gittens, Hill, and Bolomboy
Bench: Hajek, Johnson-Coston, and Hunter.
He also played with a bigger lineup of Senglin, Gittens, and Johnson-Coston in the backcourt which he may use if Weber needs to play big in non-conference games.
The rest of the newcomers have statuses still up in the air. An eight-man rotation feels awfully small over the course of the season. If Rahe needs to go to a ninth man, it appeared that that battle was between freshmen shooting guards JEREMIAH JEFFERSON and RYAN RICHARDSON.
Jefferson was equally as confident as Golden in his offensive game, putting up five shots (three from deep) in eight minutes of the first exhibition. Richardson was athletic and capable of doing well in short stints as well, but both players appeared to need to prove their value on the defensive end to be considered for minutes.
In the back court, ZACH BRAXTON appears to be the next man up, but likely only in the case of injury. The 6-foot-10 center is lengthy and athletic, a cross between the athletic, lengthy mold of Bolomboy/Hill and the traditional back-to-the-basket Hajek/Tresnak. I think he's on track to redshirt. He appeared to need a little more exposure in the Division-I game and didn't play at all in the second exhibition, but Weber could be in a lot worse shape than having him log minutes in case of injury. He'll be a good player for Weber's future.
The final newcomer is RYAN VAN PELT, another 6-foot-10 center. He's a redshirt freshman who returned from an LDS mission, but it doesn't appear he will see the floor. He did not play in either exhibition and barely got on the floor during the public scrimmage. I don't know if he's hurt, or if Rahe already knows Van Pelt isn't in his plans for the future.
(Weber has 4 committed players for the class of 2015, plus a talented recruit McKay Cannon from Idaho returning from his LDS mission, which puts them 3 players oversigned. Three of those four 2015 commits signed this week during the early signing period and the other is set to sign Monday, so they are set in stone. So there simply must be roster turnover somewhere, and where that comes is a whole other consideration!)
So to sum up: Chris Golden, when joined with Senglin and Gittens, should be able to shoulder most of the scoring load left by Berry. There are no newcomers ready to replace Tresnak, although Hajek was hurt most of last year and is a very, very similar player.
The biggest question appears to be at the point guard position, namely the void in capabilities and leadership left by Jordan Richardson. Hunter should be a nice player, but to me, he appears to be nowhere near the talent Richardson was in the same role as a true freshman. The leadership will need to come from Senglin and Gittens.
Point guard stability and guard leadership look to be the biggest unknown for Weber State, who opens the season at Utah State on Friday at 9 p.m. ET.