MOSCOW, Idaho – Wednesday morning, the two coaches and friends with an 18-year bond will have breakfast together. A few hours later, their respective teams will square off on national television.
Stew Morrill, the leader of Utah State’s wildly successful men’s basketball program, knows it’s unusual to share a meal with the opposing coach on game day. It’s a custom, though, that he and Don Verlin – Idaho’s third-year coach and former longtime USU assistant – try to abide by when the Aggies and Vandals meet.
“Game day is always pretty busy and pretty hectic emotionally,” Morrill said Tuesday. “But we always make a point to try and do that and catch up a little bit on families and that sort of thing.”
At some point during the breakfast, it seems likely Deremy Geiger’s name will be mentioned – for obvious reasons.
Geiger is the only link between the two programs aside from Verlin. The junior has started all 23 games as a first-year point guard for the Vandals (13-10, 6-5) after spending his freshman year at Utah State and last season at Grayson County College in Texas.
Wednesday night at 8 he’ll compete for the first time against many of the same players – some of whom are still his friends – that were in Logan with him during the 2008-09 season. The Western Athletic Conference clash at Cowan Spectrum will be aired on ESPN2.
“It’s is a huge game – not only for me, I know Coach Verlin thinks the same way,” Geiger said. “Two former Utah State Aggies.”
Less than two years after Geiger’s departure from USU, both sides say there’s no nagging animosity, no unanswered questions. Geiger felt it was best to leave, and Morrill obliged.
He had come to Utah State as a point guard with dazzling numbers at Canyon Springs High in Las Vegas. But before he arrived, the two assistants on the USU staff who were his chief recruiters – Verlin and James Ware – were off to new schools.
In Geiger’s lone year, he played 7.4 minutes per game and averaged 2.1 points – all while his grades deteriorated.
“It was strictly academics,” Geiger said when asked why he transferred. “I got behind in grades, which is never a good thing no matter what. And I kind of let it get the best of me.”
The 5-foot-11 point guard with a closely shaved head and affable persona landed at Grayson in Dennison, Texas. The coach there, one-time Idaho assistant Pat Rafferty, has been friends with Verlin and Morrill for years.
Verlin visited Geiger while he was in Texas and made his intentions clear: He wanted Geiger to join him at Idaho after his one year at the JC.
“Obviously we had some background from before,” Verlin said. “I knew his mom and dad very well. So there wasn’t a lot of re-introductions or things like that. As the recruiting process went on, he really liked our guys and liked Idaho.”
Geiger said he’s always felt natural as a scorer, thanks in part to long mornings shooting in a gym with his father. Robert Geiger moved with his wife Zita and only son – who was 2 or 3 at the time – to Las Vegas after being stationed with the Navy in Hawaii.
Deremy quickly flourished once at Canyon Springs, where he became the high school’s career leader in points, assists and 3-pointers made. He averaged 25 points per game as a senior, and that scoring prowess has been evident in brief bursts this season.
He went off for 25 points against Eastern Washington and scored a combined 35 points in back-to-back wins over Nevada and San Jose State. But he’s also last on the team in field-goal percentage (.324) and has cracked double figures just once in the last six games.
In the throes of a shooting slump, Geiger has tried to fine-tune his duties as a point guard – finding his teammates, keeping the offense in rhythm, doing other little things. Last week he had 11 assists in a win over SJSU that reaffirmed his approach.
“Whatever the outcome is – whether I have to be a scoring point guard or like I did the last game and get a lot of assists – I’ve just got to go with the flow and try not to predetermine anything,” he said. “Just let the flow of the game take over.”
That will be even more important tonight in what figures to be an emotional game. Less than two years after Geiger left USU, the Aggies (22-2, 11-0) are ranked 17th and 21st in the major polls and on a 25-game winning streak in WAC play.
“This is as good of a team that I can remember that Coach Morrill’s had,” Verlin said, “and he’s had a lot of good ones. But this one is as good defensively as I’ve ever seen.”