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Vandals count on adversity

Upset of Nevada could balance uneven season

MOSCOW, Idaho – He’s suspended four players in the last two months, had his second-leading scorer question him on Twitter and granted a scholarship release to his prized high school recruit.

If that weren’t enough, Idaho men’s basketball coach Don Verlin was reprimanded himself by the Western Athletic Conference for a postgame rant on officiating.

To be sure, it’s been a stormy year for the Vandals and their second-year coach. But that doesn’t mean it’s been a lost season – at least not yet.

“You hope that adversity has made your team a little stronger throughout the year and it all comes together when the time is right,” Verlin said. “And definitely the time is right now. I mean, it’s time to play.”

The WAC tournament kicks off today at the Lawlor Events Center in Reno, Nev., and seventh-seeded Idaho (15-15) faces a substantial first-round test when it battles host team Nevada at 6 p.m.

Second-seeded Nevada (19-11) has the WAC Player of the Year in versatile sophomore Luke Babbitt and the conference’s top scoring offense (79.3 points per game). It’s also beaten the Vandals three straight times after UI stunned the Wolf Pack in Reno to start last year’s WAC slate.

But those three wins for Nevada haven’t come easily. All were single-digit outcomes, and none was closer than last month’s 67-66 thriller in Moscow when Armon Johnson glided the length of the court for a bucket and free throw with 2.9 seconds left.

The painful loss sparked an outburst from Verlin on questionable late-game calls from officials. The coach later apologized, but he still made it known after Saturday’s win over Hawaii that the Vandals wanted another matchup with the Wolf Pack.

“At this point in the season, if you’re going to make the NCAA tournament, you’ve got to beat everybody in the field anyway,” Verlin said. “I think (my players are) excited to play Nevada, but they’re excited that the tournament’s here.”

Idaho again will be without its No. 2 scorer, Kashif Watson. The senior guard did not travel to Reno after being suspended indefinitely last week for leveling critical Twitter comments directed toward Verlin.

Other Vandals who have been suspended for at least a game include Mac Hopson, Corey Stern and Shawn Henderson. Stern, a freshman from Seattle, will transfer and is no longer with the club.

The off-the-court news for UI has surfaced while the team has performed unevenly from the start. The Vandals enter the postseason on a two-game winning streak, but they stumbled in four of their previous six contests before that.

That’s a stark contrast to last year, when they won six of seven to close the regular season to grab the WAC’s No. 3 seed. The upstarts were then promptly booted by Louisiana Tech in the first round.

“Last year we didn’t have any experience,” said Hopson, UI’s leading scorer. “This year we’ve got a lot of experience and we’re looking to win the whole thing.”