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Thu., Nov. 8, 2012, midnight

Vandals coach Verlin says it’s time to win some WAC tournament games

MOSCOW, Idaho – In four years, Don Verlin has shaped the Idaho men’s basketball program to his liking.

The roster is fully his own. The four seniors on this year’s team are scheduled to graduate in December or in the spring. The demanding system he’s carried over from Utah State has yielded consistent results.

All that’s nice. But Verlin expects more.

“You know, we’ve had a pretty good four-year run,” the fifth-year coach said. “No question about it, it’s time to win some WAC tournament games.”

Despite being the higher-seeded team three out of four years, Idaho is 0-4 in the conference tourney under Verlin – a mark that the 47-year-old coach harped on when asked about taking the program to the next level.

This year the Vandals will again rely on newcomers to log big minutes, but they have the talent – and just enough experience – to be in the mix in the new-look WAC.

Fifth-year senior center Kyle Barone, a preseason first-team all-WAC selection, returned last week from a nearly monthlong suspension after an alcohol-related arrest in early October. He’ll team with junior wing Stephen Madison to form one of the league’s best inside-outside duos.

Verlin likes the pieces around his two veteran standouts, even if most are unproven. Junior-college transfer Marcus Bell, a 6-foot-8 power forward, is “probably the best natural rebounder we’ve had since I’ve been here,” the Vandals’ boss said.

Another JC transfer, shooting guard Antwan Scott, impressed the coaching staff and his teammates in preseason camp with his athleticism and scoring ability. He and sophomore Connor Hill of Post Falls should provide UI with consistent outside shooting.

Leading the Vandals’ offense will be senior Mike McChristian, who last year came off the bench as a small forward. He played fewer than 15 minutes all of last season at point guard, but he still feels ready take over the position full time.

“Even though I played small forward in the games (last year), I would be point guard in the practice,” said McChristian, a 6-2 California native. “So I feel like with that experience, and the short amount of time I (played) last year … I think I’ve gained confidence at the position.”

Still, with Landon Tatum and Deremy Geiger graduated, the point guard spot is the team’s biggest question mark, Verlin said. This is the first time in his tenure that he won’t start someone with significant experience at the position.

“It’s a huge concern,” Verlin said. “I guess it’s kind of like having a new quarterback. We got so used to Landon being out there for the last two years.”

Consistency at point guard has helped Idaho have its most prosperous period over the last four years since the early 1990s. The Vandals have averaged 17 wins a season and finished third in the WAC three times.

They’ve also pocketed enough regular seasons to get invites to the tournament three times in Verlin’s tenure. But they haven’t come close to the biggest prize – their first NCAA tournament berth since 1990.

First, though, the Vandals must break through at the WAC tournament.

“I feel like we’ve finally got a system in place,” Verlin said. “Now we need to parlay that into some tournament wins – first of all, starting at the WAC tournament.”

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