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UI embraces postseason experience

It's been a long time -- 19 years to be exact -- since Idaho could relish any sort of postseason atmosphere. But that will change Wednesday night inside tiny Memorial Gym. The Vandals will take on Drake in the tournament, and it should be interesting to see how both teams react to the quick turnaround.

Keep reading for my preview of the first-round matchup.



MOSCOW, Idaho – When the call came, members of the Idaho men’s basketball team had already scattered throughout the West Coast. Mac Hopson was in Portland, Marvin Jefferson had scurried off to Los Angeles and Kashif Watson was in the Bay Area.

The three starters, however, gladly interrupted their spring break plans to return to the chilly, rain-soaked Palouse. After all, tonight the Vandals embark on something pretty rare around here – a postseason excursion. 

“For our team to play in the postseason after 19 years of not being in the postseason, it’s huge for our program,” Idaho coach Don Verlin said. “And I know our players are extremely excited about playing (tonight).” 

The upstart Vandals (16-15) will open the first-ever tournament by colliding with Drake (17-15). Tipoff is slated for 7:05 at Memorial Gym. 

A delighted Verlin and his staff notified each of the players by Sunday evening that the program had received a CIT bid, and all were back in Moscow by Monday morning. 

Having only a few days to prepare for the Des Moines, Iowa, club adds to the uniqueness of the situation. This is new territory for the 11 newcomers on the roster and the handful of returners who had grown accustomed to the Vandals' lowly status. 

Idaho lost 95 games the last four years and came into this season expected to take last yet again in the Western Athletic Conference. It nevertheless shrugged off early-season injuries and depth issues to snag a third-place league finish and a postseason berth for the first time since 1989-90.  

To everyone's surprise, the Vandals are one of 129 Division I teams still playing in mid-March.  

“I think it’s a good experience for everybody – the players, coaches, and for our administration and our fans,” Verlin said. “What we hope to build here is a long tradition of getting to the postseason and I think it’s just a start to that process.” 

Drake's turnaround, on the other hand, has been three years in the making. The school hadn't experienced a winning season since 1986-87 before garnering 17 wins in 2006-07 and reaching the NCAA tournament last year.  

The Bulldogs come from the Missouri Valley Conference, which Verlin called “brutal” in its level of difficulty. Drake is one of seven MVC members to reach postseason play, while four WAC schools are still alive. 

And while the CIT and College Basketball Invitational don't hold the same intrigue as the NCAA or even the NIT, there was no way the Vandals were going to turn down an invitation to a lower-profile event.  

“With the current setup we have going (and) the BCS schools dominating the invitations,” Verlin said, “I think it’s important to play in any type of postseason – no matter what it is. I think it’s a great opportunity for the University of Idaho.”

NOTES – Tonight's game is one of eight first-round matchups. The bracket for the quarterfinals, set for Monday, will be announced after tonight. … The Bulldogs will meet UI for just the second time in the programs' histories. The last encounter, which DU won, came in 1949. … General admission seats are $10. The game is being played at Mem Gym while the Kibbie Dome gets set for renovation. 

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