We caught up with Idaho coach Don Verlin on Tuesday afternoon with the Vandals preparing for a four-game home stand that will likely determine if UI gets back near the top of the WAC standings – or stays in the lower tier of the 10-team league.
Read on for Verlin's thoughts.
Here's where the Vandals stand: They're 7-10 and 3-4 in the WAC, with games against the two worst teams in the conference this week at Cowan Spectrum – Texas State and Texas-San Antonio. Next week Idaho hosts Utah State, which lost star Preston Medlin to an injury, and San Jose State, a team that UI has already beaten on the road. So if – and it's no guarantee seeing it just came off a four-game losing streak – Idaho goes 4-0 over the next two weeks, it will be in position to finish in the top four of the conference.
"We lost four very close ballgames, and I’m proud of our guys for hanging in there and continuing to fight, continuing to practice hard," Verlin said. "We played very well at Texas Arlington. We played pretty good at Louisiana Tech. You go back to the Utah State, and it’s a one-possession game. And Denver here, that was basically a one-possession game. The score doesn’t show that at the end. And New Mexico State, we were tied with three seconds to go.
"So what we’ve got to do is continue to keep getting better and keep fighting and I really believe we can make a run at this thing. But we have to take care of our homecourt."
Verlin is happy with Idaho's defense, particularly in conference play. In seven WAC games, it leads the league in 3-point percentage defense and is third in field-goal percentage defense. The Vandals offense, too, has been shown marked improved in conference play (partially because WAC competition isn't as strong as some of UI's nonconference foes).
But the big problem for the Vandals has been turnovers. And the second-biggest issue, Verlin said, has been rebounding. Those two things have led to opponents averaging 11.6 more field goal attempts than UI in conference play. "A few too many offensive rebounds, a few too many turnovers," Verlin said. "The other stat is, people are getting 12 or 13 more shots than us a game, and that’s an area that we’ve got to clean up. And through not turning the ball over and solidifying the defensive rebounds, and becoming a team, ‘Hey, when they miss a shot, we finish the possession with a rebound."
BELL STAYS HOME – Verlin said junior power forward Marcus Bell did not travel with the Vandals last week because the coach "didn't like his attitude."
Bell was whistled for the critical foul with 2.7 seconds left against New Mexico State that led to the Aggies' game-winning free throw. But Verlin said Bell not traveling with the team had nothing to do with the foul. "That could happen to any of us. I just need more focus and more discipline from Marcus."
RED-HOT HILL – Connor Hill, the Vandals' sophomore shooting guard, is shooting 53 percent from the 3-point line in the last 11 games. He led the Vandals with 19 points in a win at UT-Arlington last weekend, connecting on 4 of 6 long-range attempts.
Hill leads the NCAA with four four-point plays this season.