The NCAA tournament has reached the Round of 16. The NIT is down to 10 teams. And to think, Idaho’s still kicking in the CollegeInsider.com quarterfinals. The Vandals will play Pacific tomorrow night at 7.
For more on the matchup, read below for my preview.
By JOSH WRIGHT
MOSCOW, Idaho – For Stew Morrill and Don Verlin, postseason appearances at Utah State were always plentiful.
Scratching out wins once there? That was another matter.
“I’ve been in the postseason the last 10 years, not as a head coach but as assistant, and we won one time,” said Verlin, a former USU aide under Morrill and first-year Idaho head coach. “Postseason wins don’t come very often.”
Which is why he and every other Vandal took an extra few blissful moments to savor Wednesday’s first-round victory in the CollegeInsider.com tournament. Sure, the inaugural mid-major event lacks prestige, but it still carries plenty of weight to participating teams.
And it would be difficult to find a club that values its experience in the CIT more than Idaho. After years of being an afterthought, the program notched its first postseason triumph since 1982 by downing Drake in Moscow.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, playing in the postseason,” Idaho senior guard Trevor Morris said. “You just got to take advantage of it.”
Tonight at 7, the Vandals (17-15) will try to extend their bonus season when they tussle with Pacific. The quarterfinal matchup with the Big West Conference school will be at the Spanos Center in Stockton, Calif., where Verlin’s twin brother, Ron, is the associate head coach for the Tigers.
The brotherly reunion comes just days after Don gave the Pacific staff footage of UI’s early-season matchup with Portland, which fell to the Tigers on Wednesday to set up tonight’s meeting.
“Obviously it’s a staff I know very well,” Don said. “It will be a lot of fun. A hard place to win, but (it will be) a lot of fun to go down and get after them.”
This won’t just be a memorable showdown for the Verlins. Idaho redshirt guard Steffan Johnson, who’s sitting out this year, transferred from Pacific after being All-Big West player last season.
If Verlin isn’t familiar enough with his brother’s school, Johnson presumably can give his teammates a detailed scouting report.
The Tigers (20-12) have developed into a top-flight Big West program under coach Bob Thomason, recording at least 20 wins in six of the past seven years. This season they came just short of capturing their conference tournament title.
Cal State Northridge, a team Idaho beat in an ESPN BracketBuster matchup, clipped Pacific in overtime to claim the NCAA tournament berth.
The Vandals have mustered only four breakthroughs on the road this season. Three of those wins – over Western Athletic Conference foes Nevada, Boise State and Fresno State – came by a total of 10 points, so tonight figures to be a serious challenge.
If anything, though, Idaho is clicking at the right time. Its won seven of its last nine games, and even a major trouble spot for much of the year, free-throw shooting, has dramatically improved. The Vandals have canned 42 of 53 (79 percent) attempts from the foul line in the last three games.
Against Drake, Idaho showcased an especially crisp offense. It had 25 field goals on 19 assists with just 10 turnovers.
“I thought we played one of our best games of the year from an offensive standpoint,” Verlin said. “I thought we passed it as well as we’ve passed it all year…. We really shared the ball well.”
NOTES – The other quarterfinal CIT games are Belmont vs. Old Dominion, James Madison vs. Liberty and Oakland vs. Bradley. Semifinal pairings will be announced after the quarterfinals are complete.