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Idaho back in CIT, hosts UCSB on Wednesday

MOSCOW, Idaho – It’s not the tournament they were gunning for five days ago, but the Idaho Vandals are back in the postseason for the third time in four seasons.

To coach Don Verlin, that’s a significant trend.

“It shows the progress our program is making,” Verlin said after Idaho announced Sunday that it will host UC Santa Barbara in the first round of the tournament on Wednesday at 7p.m.

Another big step for the Vandals (18-13) would be to reach the 20-win mark for the first time since 1992-93 under Larry Eustachy. Idaho has to beat the Gauchos (20-10) and win a second-round game on the road to get there.

UI paid $31,000 to play its CIT opener at Cowan Spectrum. Verlin acknowledged that the price to host is “always a little scary,” but it was clearly worth it.

“We hope we can sell a bunch of tickets,” he said.

Admission is $10, and season ticket holders can pay the same price for club room seating. A small student contingent is expected with classes adjourned for spring break.

UC Santa Barbara, which lost in the finals of the Big West Conference tournament, played in the NCAA tournament the past two years. The Gauchos have two talented wing players in 6-foot-5 Orlando Johnson, the Big West’s top scorer, and 6-7 James Nunnally (15.7 ppg).

UCSB caught Verlin’s eye when it won at Utah State in February in a BracketBusters matchup. The Gauchos went 12-4 in the Big West, tying with Cal State Fullerton for second place behind to Long Beach State.

“I’ll just be honest with you: I was hoping we weren’t going to get somebody that good,” Verlin said.

The Vandals came into last week’s WAC tournament on a roll. Yet they were bounced in the first round by lower-seeded Hawaii, their fourth early exit in Verlin’s four years.

Soon after the loss they heard of the opportunity to play again in the CIT, which this year expanded to 32 teams. UI lost at San Francisco last year in the opening round of the CIT, and went 1-1 in 2009 in the tourney’s first year.

“The one thing this team has is really good chemistry,” Verlin said. “As much as were disappointed in losing on Thursday, I think the disappointment was more about not getting to play with each other again. This gives us a chance to do that.”

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