Since joining the WAC, the Idaho men's basketball team has won one conference tournament game, and that was an opening round affair in 2007. The Vandals are 1-7 in the event all-time and 0-5 under Don Verlin. But Idaho's postseason struggles go back even further: Since 1997, the program is 2-14 in conference tournaments as members of the WAC and Big West. That's right — 1-7 in the WAC, 1-7 in the Big West.
The Vandals will try to break through this afternoon against UMKC when the quarterfinals of the WAC tourney get under way in Las Vegas. The topic of our preview for this morning's paper was Idaho's suddenly aggressive transition game. We've posted a longer version of the story below, as well as a few quotes from coaches and players.
By Josh Wright
MOSCOW, Idaho – If Idaho Vandals break through in quarterfinals of the WAC tournament for the first time and rip off a few postseason wins, they'll probably look back at a lull in their schedule in late January and early February as the turning point.
Idaho had lost 12 of 20 games, and six of its last eight, when Don Verlin and his assistants were presented with almost two full weeks of practice time – just one game in 13 days – to tinker. Which is exactly what they did.
The coaches decided to switch personnel assignments during inbounds plays after made baskets, a seemingly small shift. But it was part of a larger plan from Verlin to ratchet up the pace offensively – a move that's helped ignite a late-season offensive awakening.
The suddenly explosive Vandals, 14-17 and winners of four of five, open the WAC tournament today against the University of Missouri-Kansas City (10-19). Tipoff is 2:30 at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas.
In the last six games, fifth-seeded UI has increased its output from 70.3 points per game to 83.5 points. It's shooting nearly 11 percentage points better from the 3-point line and averaging nearly four more assists per game.
The Vandals have looked like a different team, and that's because in a way they are. They've moved from a mostly halfcourt offense to one that relishes transition opportunities.
“We’ve been really moving our ball well, we’ve been pushing our ball well, our assist-to-turnover ratio has gone the other way,” Verlin said. “So that’s got to be there for us, and it has been the last four weeks.”
In Verlin's demanding halfcourt offense that he brought six years ago from Utah State, the Vandals run a labyrinth of set plays. Assistant Tim Murphy holds up a binder from the sideline with each set on a laminated white card, and the players are expected to run each play with precision.
That hasn't been a problem in the past, but UI returned just three players who had logged minutes last year. With 10 newcomers, most of whom were more comfortable in an up-tempo style, Verlin's system wasn't sinking in.
“I think we had a lot of overthinking going on out there,” Murphy said. “There’s a lot of memorization to (learn our system).”
And now, after the shift to a more freewheeling offense?
“I think it freed up their minds more than anything else,” Murphy said. “And when you do that, you give confidence to them. We allowed them to just make plays.”
The change started in UI's first game after its mini-break, a 73-67 upset of New Mexico State. During what turned out to be the signature win of the regular season, the coaches noticed after a few of the Aggies' baskets that everyone except for Mike Scott or Glen Dean, the team's point guards, dashed up the court.
This was a solid indication that the players had bought into Verlin's new full-court emphasis. But there was a problem: No one had stayed back to inbound the ball.
When the coaching staff saw momentary lapses like this, “we’d all sit there and go, 'We’ve got to expect this,' ” Murphy said. “We put (the change) in in two weeks.”
UI no longer has Hill inbound the ball after opponents' made shots. Instead, Bira Seck or Stephen Madison – whoever plays the “four” position – takes the ball out to allow Hill and Idaho's wings to get out in transition.
When the coaches made this change in late January, the Vandals used the extra practices to try to perfect inbounding in as little time as possible. The move has paid off.
“It’s just try to get the defense at a disadvantage at any time,” Madison said, “because they’re running back and (haven't) set up in their D yet.”
This is Idaho's last WAC tourney before joining the Big Sky this summer in all sports but football. The program is 0-5 in the event under Verlin and 1-7 overall, with the one win coming in an opening round game in 2007.
“I think that’s one of those deals like free-throw shooting: You make a big deal about it, it becomes a bigger deal than what it is,” Verlin said. “What we’re going to do is go down and approach UMKC just like we did five days ago.”
If the Vandals have the same success as they did at UMKC last weekend, they'll find themselves in new territory – with a spot in the semifinals on Friday.
How confident are the Vandals after their recent surge? And what about the WAC tournament drought? Here are a few quotes from coaches and players:
“I think the guys feel good about themselves, and I think we feel good about them. The team that plays with the most confidence and the most aggressive in the tournament is going to be the most successful. I think we’re in a good spot right now. Defensively, we’re struggling. We’re not stopping people, but we’re outscoring them. So you’ve got to do it one way or the other. As long as you get more points up than the other guy.”