Idaho men's basketball coach Don Verlin is as anxious as anybody to see what a nine day break from playing will mean on Thursday when the Vandals open Big Sky Conference play against Idaho State at the Cowan Spectrum.
The Vandals last played on Dec. 22 at Northern Kentucky before players departed for a five day Christmas vacation.
Based on the last two days of practice, Verlin admits to some nervousness. But he hasn't understated the importance of conference play to his team.
After all, if Idaho doesn't play well enough over the next three months then there won't be a postseason at all.
Unlike the Western Athletic Conference where every team makes the conference tournament, only eight of the 12 teams in the Big Sky will participate in the Big Sky Tournament. The four teams with the worst conference records will be left out of the tournament, hosted by the regular season conference champion.
Idaho opens Big Sky play with three consecutive home games: Idaho State on Jan. 1, defending conference champions Weber State on Jan. 3 and the favorite to host the conference tournament, Eastern Washington, on Jan. 10.
"What I’ve told our team is that there’s three parts to every season. There’s the preseason, there’s the conference season and the postseason," Verlin said. "Well, basically there’s no postseason if you don’t have a good conference season. Now, the most important of our season is the conference season and these three games at home are very important."
Idaho is familiar with the Bengals, having played its rivals from Pocatello the last two seasons in southern Idaho (both Vandal wins).
Verlin coached for 15 years with Weber State coach Randy Rahe. He said it will help the Vandals be prepared for the Wildcats, saying it'll feel like "an intra-squad scrimmage." The two coached under Stew Morrill at Colorado State and Utah State
A good start at home is imperative to Verlin.
"I think the real key in the Big Sky Conference is the depth of the league. I think every night there’s going to be a battle," Verlin said. "You look around the conference, there’s a number of good teams, a number of veteran teams that really work hard to protect the home court. That’s going to be important in conference play is to protect the home court."
If the Vandals are to come out of the opening weekend of Big Sky play with one or two wins, they will have to improve dramatically on the defensive end of the floor.
In their last three losses the Vandals conceded a combined 31 3-point baskets (on 71 attempts). Many of the misses were open looks. Currently, Idaho ranks No. 331 in the country in Ken Pomeroy's Adjusted Defensive Efficiency metric, out of 351 teams. The metric concludes that, on average, Idaho is giving up 108.3 points per 100 opponent possessions.
"We have to compete harder. We’ve got to get a little more nasty. We’ve got to grind a little bit harder," Verlin said. "We played a lot of games right down to the wire that we haven’t found a way to win. So the thing I’m looking for is a little bit more toughness, a little bit more competitive attitude."
The Vandals tip against Idaho State on Jan. 1 at 7 p.m. in its first Big Sky Conference contest since 1996.