Idaho coach Don Verlin spoke with the media on Tuesday. I've got a summary of his thoughts below. The Vandals, 16-11, have won five straight and finish the regular season with three huge WAC games -- all on the road.
Lots more after the jump.
With the way they're playing, the Vandals have set themselves up for an intriguing March. They are the hottest team in the WAC -- with wins over the top two teams in the conference during their winning streak -- and only a half-game behind second-place New Mexico State.
Idaho still could have a 20-win season and the program's best finish since joining the WAC, and it could get an appealing postseason invite too.
" ... Hopefully we’re peaking at the right time," Verlin said Tuesday. "I think we are."
But perhaps the trickiest part of the WAC schedule awaits the Vandals. They are at Utah State on Friday night for the Aggies' Senior Night. Then UI embarks on a trip to Hawaii and San Jose State next week before heading directly to the WAC tournament in Las Vegas.
The Vandals beat USU and San Jose State in Moscow, and narrowly lost to Hawaii. But Utah State -- until recently -- has had the best homecourt in the WAC, and UH is always much tougher in Honolulu.
"Toughest places to play (in the WAC)," Verlin said of this last three-game stretch. "It’s the end of the year and there’s probably more importance on (them) than any three games of the season because we have been playing well. It’s a big two weeks. But the one thing you can’t do is let expectations ruin what you’ve already accomplished. But we’re going to try to do is go in and battle like crazy at all three of those places and let the chips fall where they may.
"You know, I think we’re playing good right now. I think our guys have a lot of confidence. And it’s going to take everything we’ve got to finish the season the way we want to finish it."
Kyle Barone has been a big part of Idaho's recent surge. He was named the WAC player of the week for the second consecutive week on Monday, and he's averaged 17.6 points per game during the Vandals' five-game winning streak.
How has Barone elevated his game to such a high level? Verlin points to the junior’s focus on rebounding.
“I really think he’s been asserting himself, especially on the rebounding end,” the fourth-year coach said. “I think he’s rebounded the ball extremely well lately. He played very well from an offensive standpoint on Saturday night. I don’t know if he’s doing anything different or he’s just playing well right. He’s been practicing hard for a long period of time. It’s just paying off. I couldn’t be happier for him."
Barone, a 6-foot-10 forward, is fifth in the WAC in rebounding (8.2 per game).
Here are a few more quotes from Verlin:
- On the first matchup of the year with Utah State: "What I talked to the guys (Monday) about is our mental focus. I thought we had great mental focus at the game here against Utah State. We never lost our composure. We were down six or seven with about (3 minutes) to play and came up with some stops and Stephen (Madison) hit a big shot and Mansa (Habeeb) hit the game-clinching free throw. That’s kind of the attitude we have to go into the Spectrum at Utah State is we’ve got to be really solid mentally, because a lot of things go on down there with their crowd and that atmosphere is second to none in our league. So we’ve really got to be on our game. But we can’t let the frustration of the crowd or any of those things get the best of us."
- On Utah State this year: "They lost four or five really good seniors last year. And for whatever reason, they’ve lost a ton of close games. ... You look at their stats and their stats are very similar to ours. They’re good defensively. They’re always good offensively. They don’t rebound it quite as good as they normally have. They turn it over a few more times than they normally do. But they are still a real solid team. They’ve lost some close games."
- On UI's two non-Division I wins possibly affecting a postseason bid: "They don’t hurt you one way or the other in the RPI. I don’t think it affects us any at all. I know the CBI and CIT look at your overall record, whether it’s Division I or Division II (wins). The NIT may be a little bit different. But the thing about the NIT is we’re going to have play really well to get into that. I sometimes think the NIT is harder to get into than the NCAA tournament because the way they’re seeing that tournament now."
- On what he'd liked to see from Idaho in the last few weeks of the season: "A bunch of wins would be nice. Just continue to get better — that’s what I’ve really been preaching to those guys about. You know, teams go one way or another this time of year when it’s really time to play. … We’ve just got to continue to get better.
- On the keys to winning in March: "... We all know to win those close games in the WAC tournament and over these next two weeks, you’ve got to minimize your mistakes. And that’s what we’ve got to continue to do. "
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