POCATELLO — There haven’t been many times in recent years when you could draw similarities between the men’s basketball programs at Idaho State and Weber State.
But there are a few of them this season, along with one anomaly — ISU might be the better team.
The Bengals (6-8, 3-2 Big Sky Conference) and Wildcats (5-11, 1-4) face off in a much-anticipated rivalry matchup Thursday at Reed Gym as ISU looks to keep pace with the top half of the league standings, while Weber tries to dig out of last place.
Therein lies perhaps the most unexpected storyline of the season, as the teams’ places in the league table are usually flipped.
Outside of that, the stories of the teams’ seasons have similar narratives.
First, the sub-.500 starts and up-an-down play are unfamiliar to both head coaches.
Randy Rahe, in his 14th season at Weber State, has a .624 career winning percentage and three NCAA Tournament appearances as a head coach. The 11 losses this season are already more than he had in four prior campaigns.
Ryan Looney, in his first season at Idaho State, has an even better career winning percentage (.702) in 16 seasons as a head coach and is fresh off a run to the Division II national championship game. A Looney-coached team hasn’t had a losing record since Eastern Oregon went 4-22 in 2004-05 — Looney’s first year as a college head coach.
Next, there are the last-minute roster scrambles. Looney had to quickly compile a team after he was hired last spring, when four of last year’s key players transferred. Two more players graduated or otherwise ran out of eligibility, and there were two other departures, leaving Looney with seven players.
Weber State’s transactions came even later.
In late October, University of Pittsburgh transfer Kham Davis was granted a waiver by the NCAA, making him eligible to play this season at Weber.
Then, on Nov. 6, returning contributor Caleb Nero took to Twitter to announce his intention to transfer.
All the movement, combined with injury troubles, have caused both coaches to adjust their plans to fit personnel.
Idaho State’s Brayden Parker (foot) and Daxton Carr (transfer rules) won’t play this season.
Balint Mocsan (shoulder) is questionable to play this season. All three were expected to be major contributors.
ISU’s depth took another hit last week, when seldom-used guard Lyle Sutton, in the best game of his Bengals career, suffered a hand injury and will miss at least a few weeks.
It’s a sea change for Looney, who used the same five starters in all 36 games last season with Point Loma Nazarene.
“Never,” Looney said Monday on his weekly radio show when he was asked if he’s ever dealt with a similar rash of unavailabilities. “This is my 16th year as a head coach and no, we have never experienced anything remotely close to what we’re going through with injuries right now.”
Weber State’s situation may not be as dire, but minor injuries and inexperienced fill-ins have forced Rahe to alter his lineup numerous times.
Ten players have started at least one game for the Wildcats; Cody John is the only one to start all 16. Davis and preseason league MVP Jerrick Harding have both missed time with injuries, and 6-foot-8 sophomore Donatas Kupsas suffered a season-ending knee injury in Weber’s second game of the season.
It all adds up to the type of adversity that makes each victory, for each team, worth celebrating.
“Right now, we’re celebrating every win we can get,” Looney said Tuesday.
SCOUTING THE WILDCATS
Weber State was picked to finish third in the Big Sky’s preseason media poll, but has two Division I wins through its first 16 games and enters Thursday’s matchup on a three-game losing streak.
Defense and rebounding have hurt the Wildcats, who rank 338th in opponents’ effective field-goal percentage (55.6) and second-to-last in the Big Sky in rebounding margin (minus-1.5).
Weber State has had a defensive rating of 100 or more — meaning it allowed more than one point per possession — nine times, and has lost the rebounding margin 10 times.
But the Wildcats limit turnovers, giving it away 11.9 times per game — 50th-best in D-I.
Harding (19.9 points per game) and John (12.8 ppg) lead Weber State in scoring. Harding’s average is tops in the league, and he makes 52% of his shots.
The senior point guard enters Thursday 179 points away from overtaking Weber State’s career scoring record. He has scored at least 17 points in all but two games this season.
“A lot of it is, No. 1, I think his nature, how aggressive he is,” Looney said of Harding’s scoring ability. “He gets (points) in two ways: all the ball screens they set for him, and then he really likes to drive the baseline to layups on either side of the rim.”
After Harding and John, Weber State’s next-leading scorer is Michal Kozak. While his 7.3 ppg don’t jump off the stats page, his 5.7 rebounds per game, 1.9 assists per game and 1.4 blocks per game give him solid all-around numbers.
The 6-foot-8 junior has done most of his damage in conference play, averaging 12.4 points, 11.0 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 2.8 blocks. He flirted with a triple-double in a Jan. 9 loss to Northern Colorado, when he amassed 13 points, 18 rebounds and seven blocked shots.