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Vandals embrace chance at postseason

MOSCOW, Idaho – The Idaho men’s basketball team, still smarting from its early WAC tournament exit, gathered in front of a TV on Saturday night to watch New Mexico State and Louisiana Tech in the conference title game.

As the Aggies – a team the Vandals beat in February – dispatched Tech to punch a ticket to the NCAA tournament, there was one prevailing thought among UI players.

“We were supposed to be there,” senior forward Djim Bandoumel said.

The Vandals looked to be a legitimate WAC tournament contender after a strong late-season push. But they again couldn’t get over the first-round hurdle in Las Vegas.

The only comfort for Idaho after the 72-70 loss to Hawaii was realizing its season wasn’t over. The Vandals accepted a bid to the 32-team tournament and host UC Santa Barbara tonight at 7 at Cowan Spectrum.

“It’s not the one we all wanted, not the ultimate goal,” guard Landon Tatum said. “But being that we still get to keep playing, you can’t say no to that.”

With a win over the Gauchos, the Vandals (18-13) will have the most victories in a season since 1992-93, when they went 24-8. But this is no gimme.

UCSB is 20-10 and features the Big West Conference’s leading scorer in Orlando Johnson. The 6-foot-5 senior wing averages 19.7 points per game after putting in 21.1 a game last year.

He’s accompanied by 6-7 James Nunnally (15.7 ppg), a fellow perimeter-oriented player who helped UCSB get within one win of reaching the NCAA tournament for the third straight year.

“I personally think they might have two of the best guards we might face all year, especially on the same team,” Tatum said.

In trying to collect intel on the Gauchos, UI coach Don Verlin had two advantages. His twin brother Ron is on the staff at Pacific, a fellow Big West school. He also spoke at length to his former boss, Utah State coach Stew Morrill, whose team lost at home to UCSB last month.

Verlin was initially taken aback at the quality opponent that UI drew in the first round. But he welcomes the opportunity.

“I think that’s what postseason’s all about,” he said. “We are going to get challenged and it’s a great opponent for our fans.”

It’s also a chance to practice a few more times with a developing team, and gauge the support from Idaho fans around the Palouse and elsewhere. Most students left Moscow last weekend for spring break, so the UI athletic department has turned to local businesses and groups to buy tickets in bulk.

UI paid $31,000 to host its CIT opener. It’s charging $10 to the general public – as well as to students – for admission.

“I’m hoping that the people here in Moscow (and) the students will rally around our basketball team and come out and watch them play,” Verlin said.