With just two games left in the regular season, Idaho has a chance to dramatically improve -- or hurt -- it's seeding for the WAC tournament in Reno. The Vandals are fifth in the conference right now, with the chance to possibly move up a couple spots with wins over Louisiana Tech and Fresno State this week.
Keep reading for my story on guard Trevor Morris and where the Vandals sit as they near the postseason, plus a few notes items.
First, my story ....
By JOSH WRIGHT
MOSCOW, Idaho - Don Verlin swears the inclination was never there, not even when Trevor Morris was in the throes of what seemed like an impossible-to-shake shooting funk.
“He's never been told not to shoot,” the first-year Idaho coach said. “I just ask him to take good ones that are open.”
That message appears to have sunk in for Morris, the longest-tenured player on a surprising Vandal squad. The 6-foot-4 senior guard has rediscovered his long-range stroke in recent weeks, especially the past two games.
Morris pumped in 27 points and canned 7 of 9 3-pointers in a road swing through San Jose State and Fresno State last week, helping Idaho snag a much-needed split after a numbing loss to the Spartans. His resurgence is the latest in a string of rosy developments for a program picked to finish last in the Western Athletic Conference.
Instead the Vandals (14-14, 7-7) sit in fifth place, just a game behind third-place Boise State, entering the final two contests of the regular season. They'll square off with Louisiana Tech tonight at the Cowan Spectrum, followed by a rematch Saturday night with Fresno State.
Regardless of how this weekend unfolds, Idaho has already snatched as many WAC victories this season as it did in its first three years (2006-2008) combined in the conference. And the club is guaranteed to avoid the dreaded play-in game between eighth- and ninth-place teams at the conference tournament.
“It's amazing,” Morris said earlier this week. “The last couple years obviously have been terrible. But to come in and be (at .500) at this point in the year, it's just amazing to me. It feels way better than any season I've had here.”
The way Morris and the Vandals began the season, however, it looked like another frustrating year was in store. As Idaho put up back-to-back stinkers at Michigan State and Gonzaga, both 30-plus point losses, Morris went a combined 6 of 22 from the field.
His slump continued through the non-conference with the low point coming in two games against South Carolina State. He clanged all nine of 3-point attempts at SCSU and went 0-for-4 from outside when the Bulldogs came to Moscow for a return trip a week later.
“I kind of went through a period like that last year, too,” said Morris, in his third year at UI. “I remember at Washington State I was like 1 for 9. It was kind of the same thing - you've got to get in the gym and get extra reps.”
The lanky Missoula product has worked tirelessly alongside Chris Helbing, UI's director of basketball operations, to solve his shooting woes. His persistence, despite weeks of seemingly little progress, has impressed Verlin and assistant coach Ray Lopes.
“He's been a guy who Coach (Verlin) has gotten on hard a lot in practice throughout the year,” said Lopes, a former head coach at Fresno State. “But the thing about Trevor, he continues to practice hard. He still continues to listen. He still continues to try and learn how he can get out of the ruts that he's in.”
The key to Morris' success is shot selection, Verlin said. When he avoids off-balance looks and releases perimeter shots in the flow of a Vandal offense that relies heavily on 3-pointers, good things usually happen.
Morris contends his recent stretch of torrid shooting isn't the result of a newfound approach or tinkering with his mechanics. More than anything, confidence has played a key role.
“It's kind of the law of averages - they've got to go down eventually,” he said. “And they just did this last week. It felt good.”
The positive vibes will continue if the Vandals can keep their late-season surge going. They've claimed four of their last five games, and two more wins heading into the WAC tournament could lead to an even bigger payoff.
Depending on how things shake out this weekend, Verlin figures the Vandals could land anywhere between the second and seventh seed.
“These two games that we have coming up are huge,” Morris said. “If we win both of these, I think we'll be right where we need to be to make a run in the WAC tournament.”
Next, here's a brief look at the Vandals' final regular-season week ...
Record: 14-14, 7-7 WAC
Coming up: Today vs. Louisiana Tech, 7:05; Saturday vs. Fresno State, 7:05 p.m.
Outlook: There are only two WAC teams the Vandals have yet to beat this year, and one of them is Louisiana Tech. The Bulldogs (14-16, 6-9) polished off the Vandals 74-63 on Jan. 17 in their gym, a loss that was more lopsided than the final score indicates. “They handled us as good as anybody all year,” UI coach Don Verlin said. Like the Vandals, Tech is rolling at the right time. It has won four straight and five of six. 6-foot-5 guard Kyle Gibson leads the team in scoring (15.3 points per game) and is hitting 3-pointers at a .403 clip. Idaho will wrap up the regular season by taking on last-place FSU, a club it slipped past just five days ago in Fresno.
Now, onto some other notes and quotes of interest ...
Point guard Mac Hopson has been feted by the National Association of Basketball Coaches. You can read more here.
Verlin and assistant Ray Lopes had some interesting things to say that I couldn't fit into the story. Here's some of what they shared:
Lopes, on what he expected from the team this year: "When you take over a program ... you really don't know what to expect. The thing about Coach and myself is we knew the league. We knew the level of toughness you had to play at to be successful in this league, how hard you had to play to be successful in the league, how prepared you had to be to be successful in this league. But you never know what you really have in terms of a team until you roll the ball out that first game and start playing a few games. So early on it didn't look great. But to these guys' credit, we played two top 25 teams and two teams that are league champions in Michigan State and Gonzaga. And as we reflect back on those games and the preseason, we learned a lot."
Lopes, on why the Vandals have been the surprise of the WAC: "The thing about this group and why we are where we are, I think is, one, they've bought into Coach's system. Two, they've learned how to prepare to put themselves into position to have success. And three, when they play hard and they play together, they're going to have a chance to win games because we're athletic. And our athleticism is always a factor in most games. But it's only a factor if we play hard and we play together."
Verlin, on Idaho's rebounding struggles: "I think we came out and rebounded it as hard as we have all year at Fresno. I think (San Jose) is very good rebounding-wise and we just did an awful job. And it's been our Achilles' heel. When we've lost this year in league, it's been because we got outrebounded. Utah State outrebounded us by 19, San Jose outrebounded us by 25 the other night. I mean, we have to find a way to battle on the boards – and it's not just our big guys. It's everybody. Marvin Jefferson having 11 at Fresno and Brandon Wiley having eight was huge for us winning that game."