MOSCOW, Idaho – The Idaho Vandals could use more time before the Western Athletic Conference men’s basketball season opens this week. That much is certain, and it’s not just because coach Don Verlin’s overhauled roster is so inexperienced.
The Vandals usually kick off WAC play after Jan. 1, when students at least are thinking of returning to campus. But Wednesday night, in the middle of holiday break, they’ll host New Mexico State at Cowan Spectrum – followed by a game with Louisiana Tech on Friday night.
With few students around and faculty on extended vacation, crowds on both nights figure to be even sparser than normal for the program with the lowest average home attendance in the WAC.
“No question we’d like to have another week, and another week for our students to get back,” said Verlin, UI’s third-year coach. “We’re going to play two games in WAC play without our students there.”
The conference season starts a week early because the WAC wanted to avoid teams playing a three-game week and accommodate ESPNU BracketBuster matchups in the middle of February.
It’s not an ideal situation for the Vandals, but at least they come into the conference portion of their schedule with some momentum. Last week they upended Oregon at McArthur Court – their first victory over a Pac-10 club since beating Washington State in 2002.
The win highlighted a volatile first six weeks of the season for Idaho (6-5).
All but one of the Vandals’ losses have come by double digits, including a 42-point trouncing at Montana. But UI also swept the inaugural Basketball Travelers Classic in Moscow before absorbing a last-second loss in a rematch with the Griz and holding off the Ducks in Eugene.
“I think the last three weeks we’ve been starting to get better,” Verlin said. “To win at Oregon was a huge win for our basketball program. No question I’ve been happy with our progress.”
Before the season the Vandals were picked by WAC coaches and the media to finish eighth out of nine teams in the conference. Much has changed since then, including worse-than-expected starts for Nevada (3-9) and NMSU (6-8).
Beyond Utah State – which at 11-2 is “still the class of the field,” Verlin said – there appears to be a batch of similarly skilled teams capable of earning top-tier seeds in the WAC tournament.
Like Verlin’s first year, when Idaho finished third, this UI team could exceed expectations if it’s able to find ways to generate offense. The Vandals are last in the WAC in scoring (64.4 points per game) and don’t have a player among the top 15 scorers in the conference.
But they have a balanced rotation – six players contribute at least 8.3 points per game, led by Deremy Geiger. And they average the second-most assists in the WAC.
One of the early surprises has been backup point guard Landon Tatum, a junior from San Antonio. He scored 11 points against Oregon and has shown flashes of assertiveness off the bench.
As the season has progressed, Verlin has increasingly paired Tatum and Geiger – the team’s two point guards – in the lineup to get more speed and better ball-handling ability on the court.
“I think if we have shown a sign of weakness and an area where we need to improve in, it is taking care of the basketball,” Verlin said. “And us having two point guards on the floor at the same time, that was kind of my thought behind it – that it would help us improve in that area. And it has a little bit.”