A year ago this weekend, the Vandals were 8-10 -- two games worse in the loss column than they sit right now. But why does it feel so different around Moscow this time? It's all about expectations, and a four-game losing streak.
Read on for more on where Idaho stands heading into this evening's home game with Utah State, the first of three straight at Cowan Spectrum.
UPDATE: There will be a parade for the UI football team in celebration of its Humanitarian Bowl victory starting at 2 p.m. in downtown Moscow. A trophy presentation will take place at halftime of the basketball game.
First, here's a capsule I put together for Thursday's Spokesman:
Coming up: Saturday vs. Utah State, 5:05 p.m.
Record: 8-8, 1-4 WAC
Overview: The Vandals haven’t mustered a breakthrough against Utah State since Leonard Perry was coach in 2004, and the circumstances don’t look ideal for an upset Saturday. UI has lost four in a row and sits in eighth place in the WAC while USU has won three straight coming into tonight’s trip to Fresno State (which it won 69-43). The Aggies lost conference player of the year Gary Wilkinson but remain potent up front with Tai Wesley (13.5 points and 6.8 rebounds per game) and Nate Bendall (10.8 and 6.1). “It’s a tough game for us because they execute so well and don’t beat themselves,” UI coach Don Verlin said. “And right now we’re not executing very well and we’ve kind of beat ourselves.”
For the last several weeks, Verlin has insisted to reporters that the Vandals are going to start playing good basketball. He's just not sure when. They've staggered in the waning minutes of the first or second half in their last four WAC games, and all have resulted in losses.
But if they are anything like last year's team -- and of course, they returned almost everyone before Brandon Wiley's injury -- the Vandals won't turn it on until mid-February. Last year UI reeled off seven wins in their final eight games before losing to Pacific in the CIT.
"We’ve played 16 games," Verlin said, before realizing only six have been at home. "We’ve just got to battle. This is no different team than it was last year. There is no different coaching staff."
With four of five starters back and the addition of a few talented newcomers, the Vandals expected to compete for a WAC title. But only winless Boise State has a worse league record so far.
It will be a major chore to start climbing out of an eighth-place hole tonight. Since they joined the WAC in 2005, the Vandals have beaten seven of the other eight conference members at least once. But they have yet to top Utah State, which is rolling after a rough spell.
Here are some additional comments from Verlin:
On Utah State (14-6, 4-2): "You have start with their post guys. Tai Wesley and Nate Bendall are big, strong physical guys inside that can rebound and score. Jared Quayle is a good point guard. … Pooh Williams is playing very well at the ‘3’ and Tyler Newbold is a 10-year veteran at the wing for them. It seems like he’s been there forever. They’ve got a good, solid veteran team. So all the matchups are important."
On the key to hanging with the Aggies, who have won by 44, 8, 21 and 26 in their last four games: "We just have to be sound in our execution and like every game for us, it’s rebound the ball and take care of the ball. If we do those two things, it will be a good basketball game."
Curiously, point guard Mac Hopson leads UI in rebounds during its five conference games, surpassing Marvin Jefferson and Luiz Toledo. Meanwhile Utah State leads the WAC in rebounding margin (plus 5.9) while Idaho is fifth (3.1).
Another telling statistical difference: USU is No. 1 in free-throw percentage (.768) while the Vandals (.653) rank last in the WAC.