Life after Lillard hasn’t been so bad for the boys at Weber State.
As the confetti rained down on the Wildcats after their 88-67 win over North Dakota in the Big Sky tournament championship game, Kyle Tresnak looked up, and for once, the streamers were not the wrong colors.
He’d seen them too many times, felt them too many times, each tiny shining piece like a dagger on the skin. This time, they felt right, particularly after Tresnak scored a career-high 27 points against North Dakota.
Tresnak whooped and shouted and smiled along with the rest of the Wildcats, and one more familiar face.
Damian Lillard starred for the Wildcats for three-plus seasons before blazing his trail in the NBA with Portland, where he won rookie of the year honors last year.
His college career was marked with individual highs — two Big Sky player of the year awards, 24.5 points per game as a redshirt junior — and team disappointments.
In 2012, the Wildcats finished 25-6 overall and 14-2 in conference play but were left with a CIT bid after a loss in the Big Sky Conference tournament title game to Montana. That followed appearances in the College Basketball Invitational and two National Invitation Tournament bids, perhaps nice consolation prizes, but certainly no ticket to the big dance.
Without Lillard last year, Weber State showed no signs of slowing, finishing 30-7 and 18-2 in conference play, again being relegated to the CIT, where the Wildcats made it to the finals.
Those near misses made Saturday’s success mean so much more, to Tresnak and to Lillard, who was in attendance at the championship game.
“I still really haven’t found the words to describe my feelings; I’m still kind of in shock,” Tresnak said. “I’ve been dreaming about this since I can remember. To be able to say I’m going to make it a reality is huge. The feeling of disappointment I’ve had over the years, not being able to make it, having other team’s confetti fall on us, it made everything feel that much sweeter when we won it.”
To have Lillard there made it even sweeter, even if he wouldn’t be dancing with them, even if he’s a major part of the reason they’re dancing in the first place.
Lillard’s college success, and his subsequent high selection (No. 6 overall in the 2012 NBA Draft) and brilliant professional start, have put Weber State on the map, even if there was some legend before the legend.
The Wildcats were perennial NCAA tournament contenders from the late-1960s through the early 1980s.
Weber State made it to March Madness 10 times in 16 years at one point. In the 1990s, the Wildcats surprised Michigan State and North Carolina in the first round of the 1995 and 1999 NCAA tournaments, respectively.
Weber State freshman Richaud Gittens said he knew little about the Wildcats’ history before he committed, and Tresnak echoes the statement.
Before Lillard, Weber State wasn’t a destination for recruits, certainly not those with high-major offers.
“The legacy he left behind has helped tremendously,” Tresnak said. “Being able to use him as a recruiting tool, it just kind of shows that if you’ve got the talent, the NBA will find you. It doesn’t matter what school you go to.”
Since Lillard’s departure, the Wildcats have brought in 2013-14 Big Sky player of the year Davion Berry, a transfer from Cal State Monterery Bay, forward Joel Bolomboy, who averages nearly 11 rebounds per game and picked WSU despite offers from New Mexico and Texas A&M, and Jeremy Senglin, a freshman who spurned Air Force, TCU and Colorado State, among others.
In the program’s last class, head coach Randy Rahe signed players who had also considered schools such as Texas Tech, Tulsa, Nevada, Wyoming and Colorado State.
That, combined with the team’s NCAA tournament appearance this year, has the Wildcats among the country’s most up-and-coming programs. But for Weber State to become the next Gonzaga or the next Wichita State, it will need sustained success.
“We’re still building on that foundation,” Tresnak said. “We still need to make a little more noise. Dame helped a lot, and him playing as well as he is definitely brought some noise for Weber State and us making the tourney helping, but to consider yourself a Gonzaga when you’re a midmajor is very hard to do.”
But they’re off to a good start.
A good showing on Friday would be another step, just like the tournament title was. Even if they don’t topple Goliath, the Wildcats will celebrate.
This time, without Lillard, who continues to leave his legacy in Ogden, Utah.
“It’s been pretty surreal. I really don’t even know how to explain it,” said Gittens, who has spoken with Lillard several times in the past, sharing that Lillard had told him that to become a star, he became ‘addicted to success.’
“He came on the court, he celebrated with us, he hugged our coaches. It was like the championship he didn’t get. When we won, he won.”