Every day, every way, get a little better." That's what the Wildcats of Weber State College shout after every practice, with a conviction to gladden the heart of the cockeyed French optimist who said it, or something very much like it, first. But forgive them, M. Couè, for saying it with a snarl.
The Wildcats are miffed, and one really can't blame them. They don't get much attention, even at home in Utah, where Weber (say weeber, please) has long been considered the "fourth" school in the state, behind Brigham Young, Utah State and even the University of Utah.
Partly to blame for this paucity of acclaim has been a shortage of name players at Weber. BYU has Danny Ainge. Utah has Danny Vranes. Weber has players other schools passed up or didn't know existed. But what Weber has lacked in fame it has made up for in basketball victories. Since becoming a four-year college in the early '60s, this nursing and teaching school in Ogden, a city of 67,500 in the northern part of the state, has averaged almost 20 wins a year. Only once have the Wildcats had a losing season.
After practice the squad also gives a holler for each win. As of now there have been hollers for 26 such occasions this year, and the decibel level could go up as the team heads into the NCAA tournament. Weber's 26-2 mark is not only tops in the state but also one of the nation's best, something that hasn't been lost on the wire services, which have ranked the Wildcats as high as 15th.
Brigham Young, though, is considered big-time while Weber is only Big Sky, but the Cougars are in no hurry to take on the Wildcats. The teams have met only five times in 18 seasons—BYU has a 3-2 edge—and not at all in the last two. BYU Coach Frank Arnold has been quoted as saying a game with Weber would not "enhance our schedule," but Weber Coach Neil McCarthy suspects BYU may be ducking.
"When Coach Arnold took over at BYU after four years as an assistant at UCLA, we asked him if he'd like to play us on a regular basis, but he wasn't very interested," McCarthy says. "He said, 'If you beat us it makes us look bad, and if we beat you, so what.' I just said, 'Coach, you've been out of the state too long.' "
There is a chance the two schools will meet in the NCAA regionals, but first the Wildcats must get by Lamar (probable) and Oregon State (doubtful) in the first two rounds at Weber's Dee Center this week. Whatever the NCAAs bring, Wildcat fans can relish the successful defense of last season's conference championship, which Weber accomplished last Saturday night by defeating Montana 50-42.
A tall, angular team, Weber is a study in bony knees and elbows. It does not display overwhelming strength and quickness. Weber wins anyway with a disciplined, motion zone offense called the Mixer, which was devised by McCarthy.
A series of weaves, picks and back cuts, the offense is designed to free the shooter no more than 15 feet from the basket and usually in his favorite spot. Of an early-season win over Michigan State, McCarthy says, "Their matchup zone is supposed to be the best in the country, but we went over it, around it and through it." Final score: 63-61. The Mixer has churned at a 52% field-goal-shooting clip this season.
Of Weber's five starters, four have played together since their freshman year, with three coming off all-conference seasons a year ago. Senior Guard Bruce Collins is the alltime Big Sky Conference scoring leader, with 1,987 points.
Getting privy to such information is a pretty good trick outside the Wasatch Range, which is beautiful country but, unfortunately, just as dim in the national consciousness as Weber State and the Big Sky Conference. Nevertheless, conference teams are capable of holding their own and occasionally springing an upset against the UCLAs and Long Beach States in tournament play. Indeed, the Big Sky has come a long way. All eight conference teams used to play in cramped, poorly lit pits, but three of them now boast recently built domed arenas.
Former Big Sky coaches like the Washington Bullets' Dick Motta, Michigan State's Jud Heathcote and Chicago Bulls Assistant Coach Phil Johnson have made a go of it on much larger stages. Next to move on and up may be McCarthy, a gregarious smoothie whose choice in liquid refreshment (Hi C) fits the area's Mormon life-style. But McCarthy is at ease with his more acclaimed and flamboyant colleagues.
"We don't have that big reputation in the East or Midwest, but you better believe it's just as tough to win on the road in the Big Sky as it is for teams in the ACC or Big Ten," McCarthy says. "The people in this area just go crazy. There's tremendous fan interest. I mean, what else are you going to do in Missoula. Mont.? You're gonna go down to the gym and get behind your team."
McCarthy warms to his subject. "People think of Top 20 teams as a bunch of big, physical studs, all of 'em high school All-Americas," he says. "We get the kids that the others have missed on. Collins is from Wyoming. Now, how many people are going to want to go recruiting in Wyoming in the middle of winter?
"But we're pretty to watch. Nobody in the United States plays together better than we do. You see some of these teams, and it's two passes, then wham-bam slams and jams. Then the coaches sit back and moan about passing. 'Where has all the passing gone? No one passes anymore.' "
Passing just happens to be an integral part of Weber State's game, and no one does it better than the Wildcats' floor general, Mark Mattos, who is averaging 7.5 assists a game.
The words used most often to describe the senior pre-med student are "cocky" and "arrogant." Those not as friendly with Mark say other things, but Mattos just shrugs off the talk.
"I don't need to be nice to anybody," he says, which could be true if you have an I.Q. of 150 and a 3.8 grade-point average, as he does. "I'd rather have people not like me and go crazy everywhere we go. People want me to do bad and see the team lose, but when things like that are against us, it makes us band together. We have a common goal of shutting those people up."
Mattos has been greeted the most strenuously at Idaho State. In his freshman year he brashly predicted a win (the Wildcats did) and a big night by Mattos (it was). From that point on, a Weber trip into Pocatello has taken on a circus atmosphere—Mattos on the high wire without a net.
Although spectators in the ISU Minidome are separated from the floor by a banked track, there is room around the court for about 200 fans. Ostensibly, admission is granted on a first-come, first-served basis, but in reality, preference is given to those with the leatheriest lungs.
Because Weber's Jan. 26 game with Idaho State would be the last trip to Pocatello in Mattos' career, the ISU students, some in T shirts that read MATTOS IS A HOT DOG, made it a special one, booing him unmercifully from the moment he led Weber onto the floor. But Mattos had the last roar. Although he took only two shots from the floor, he had 14 assists and led the Wildcats to an 83-67 romp.
After the final buzzer, Mattos turned in all four directions and waved his fists at the crowd, a gesture that said, "I can beat you every day, every way."
McCarthy checks Mattos, his on-court general.