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Tue., March 10, 2009, 10:02 p.m.

Vandals gird for WAC tourney

These are heady days for the Vandal men's basketball team. After having bottom-of-the-barrel expectations for this season, Idaho starts the postseason as the No. 3 seed in the WAC tournament. First up: Louisana Tech at 8:30 p.m. Thursday.

Click below for an early version of my preview.

By the way, Fresno State upended Hawaii 62-58 in the play-in game Tuesday. The Bulldogs will face top-seeded Utah State on Thursday.



MOSCOW, Idaho - They've rattled off six wins in their last seven games to make a stunning late-season charge up the Western Athletic Conference standings. Yet still, the Idaho Vandals haven't exactly taken a stress-free route to their newfound status.

Not even in the last three weeks.

Despite coming into Thursday's WAC men's basketball tournament opener against Louisiana Tech as perhaps the league's hottest team, the Vandals (16-14) have had to sweat out the lion's share of their recent victories - often after erasing healthy deficits.

Last weekend, for example, Idaho slipped into a 12-point hole before registering a 59-56 win over Fresno State, the WAC's last-place team. It was the club's seventh league contest decided by five points or less, five of which the Vandals pulled out.

“We know things aren't going to go our way (early in games), because it never does,” point guard Mac Hopson said. “... We've just got to fight through (the adversity), and that's what we usually do.”

Added senior guard Trevor Morris: “We've been in that situation numerous times before. It's not new territory. When you look at Boise State, we went down 15-2 or whatever.”

Indeed, Idaho scarcely could have started worse during its trip to BSU. But it rallied from a 13-point deficit to topple the Broncos for the second time this season.

The conquests of Boise, after 14 straight losses in the series, are just two of a bounty of highlights in what's been a memorable year for the Vandals compared to a bleak recent past. They came into the season having endured nine consecutive losing seasons and lots of roster upheaval the last two years under George Pfeifer.

First-year coach Don Verlin brought 11 newcomers into the fold and quickly molded them into the most up-tempo Vandals squad in years. Piloted by Hopson, a transfer from WSU and first-team All-WAC selection, Idaho collected 12 home wins, key road victories at BSU and Nevada and the third seed for the conference tournament at Reno, Nev.

All these feats came after WAC media and coaches pegged UI to finish last.

“We're feeling great,” Verlin said. “If you had told us at the start of this year that we'd be the third seed, we'd have (taken) it and not played the games. We're extremely happy.”

This week, the Vandals will try to reverse their history as a non-factor in the WAC tourney. They've pocketed just one tournament contest in three previous years, and that was a play-in game against San Jose State in 2007.

The single-elimination event will start with a matchup against sixth-seeded La Tech (14-17) at 8:30 p.m. Pacific. The gritty, defensive-minded Bulldogs frustrated UI in the teams' first encounter, eventually claiming an 11-point win.

Idaho then evened the season series with a 66-58 triumph last week in Moscow. The payback, Verlin said, came with his club playing at a much higher level than in the first meeting.

“I think (it's) more of our team is getting better,” said Verlin, when asked to compare the two regular-season tilts with La Tech. “I thought they beat us in every phase of the game down there. It's going to be a tough game on Thursday night.”

If the Vandals win, they'll meet the Nevada-San Jose State victor in the semifinals on Friday - a game that will be televised on ESPN2.

Playing in front of a national TV audience for a spot in the WAC title game would be another heady feat for the once-beleaguered program. And if it happens, UI's chances of getting into one of two lower-tier postseason events - the College Basketball Invitational and tournament - would no doubt increase.

Verlin said an invitation to the NIT seems out of Idaho's reach because of its RPI ranking of 120.

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