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Idaho should be in mix

Tue., Jan. 3, 2012, midnight

Protecting home court will be vital for WAC title contenders

MOSCOW, Idaho – The Western Athletic Conference has been in flux for more than a year, with schools leaving, hopping aboard and – in the case of Boise State – soon-to-be rejoining the conference in all sports but football and wrestling.

The changes have come at such a frantic pace that it’s hard to keep tabs on which schools are going where. But this much we know: The impact of BSU’s departure last summer has already been felt in football and will start to be noticed this week on the basketball court.

Conference games start Thursday with Idaho hosting Nevada at 8:05 p.m. and Fresno State at Utah State.

With BSU off to the Mountain West – through next season only – the league’s eight current members will have travel partners and play 14 conference games instead of 16. That puts even more of an emphasis on playing well at home, Vandals coach Don Verlin said.

“(The) opening weekend is a great weekend for us,” said Verlin, whose team also plays Fresno State on Saturday afternoon. “And it’s huge with one less team. If you’re going to have a chance to win the league, you’ve got to take care of your home cooking, ’cause road wins are going to be hard to get.”

There’s no need, though, for Verlin and other WAC coaches to get used to the reworked conference schedule. Nevada, Hawaii and Fresno will move to the Mountain West after this season and five schools – Seattle, Denver, Texas State, the University of Texas-Arlington and UT-San Antonio – will take their place July 1.

For now, the Vandals (7-7) are occupied with collecting another top-tier WAC finish. They were third last season behind Utah State (which is rebuilding after four consecutive WAC titles) and Boise State (which nipped UI last week in the Vandals’ final nonconference tuneup).

With USU not the dynamo it has been, Nevada (10-3) and New Mexico State (10-5) are the only teams with double-digit wins starting league play. The rest of the WAC is bunched together, with six to eight victories apiece.

It may appear to be a more competitive race than past seasons, but Verlin isn’t so sure.

“It looks like Nevada is the elite team in the league with a Pac-12 road win (at Arizona State) and a Pac-12 home win (over Washington),” he said. “I think they’ve been very, very good and they obviously return the most guys. They’re the best team.”

The Wolf Pack’s returning core is led by talented point guard Deonte Burton, big man Dario Hunt and 6-foot-5 Malik Story. They’ve won seven straight heading into their matchup with the Vandals.

NMSU, meanwhile, is the conference’s top-scoring team and the highest-rated club in the Ratings Percentage Index (No. 96). Verlin has also been impressed with Hawaii and Fresno.

Then there’s Utah State, which lost to Weber State and Texas A&M Corpus Christi, among others, early in the season before winning four in a row and almost upsetting nationally ranked Mississippi State last week. Verlin, a former longtime assistant to Stew Morrill, has no doubt USU (8-6) will be in the mix.

“Oh, yeah. They’ll be good,” he said. “They’ve had some adjustments and you know, they had a real tough schedule early. … They had a lot of new guys and the system takes a while to get guys settled in.”

The Vandals would be sitting in a better position entering league play if not for three consecutive losses by seven combined points – and a fourth earlier in December to Washington State by two points. All of UI’s setbacks have been by single digits and most have boiled down to too many turnovers or missed free throws.

“For us, we always think if we play the way we know we are supposed to play effort-wise and making sure we don’t have as many miscues, we think we can compete with everybody in the WAC,” senior point guard Landon Tatum said.

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