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Idaho’s Barone responds from mistake with strong senior year

Idaho's Kyle Barone (33) finishes a slam dunk. (Jesse Tinsley)
Idaho's Kyle Barone (33) finishes a slam dunk. (Jesse Tinsley)

MOSCOW, Idaho – Before the first of his now 119 consecutive games for the University of Idaho, Kyle Barone was finishing a team meal in a Salt Lake City hotel when he got an abrupt message from one of his assistant coaches.

“Hey, there’s a problem, Barone,” Mike Score hollered to the redshirt freshman. “You’ve got to go up to the front desk.”

A bewildered Barone headed to the lobby. Standing there was his father, Mike, who had taken a surprise flight from Southern California to see his son’s first collegiate game at Utah.

The maturity Barone showed that night in a win over the Utes compared with his high school days amazed his father. Just like the growth in maturity and confidence he has shown since the low point of his career last fall.

Barone, 23, is the most accomplished low-post player in Idaho history, and he’s finishing his time in Moscow with a masterful year against Western Athletic Conference opponents. But the start of his final season was almost derailed when he was charged with driving under the influence in Pullman.

The 6-foot-10 senior center with shortly cropped black hair and a thin beard missed preseason practice time and one exhibition game while serving a suspension. During that brief time away from the team, Barone felt the full weight of what he called a stupid mistake.

“One mistake in your life can take away everything you’ve worked for, everything you love,” he said while hunched over in a folding chair Tuesday after practice at Cowan Spectrum.

Since then, some of those closest to Barone – his roommate and teammate Stephen Madison, Vandals coach Don Verlin and his father – say he has accepted responsibility for the DUI charge and responded to being called out by the coaching staff.

“You learn from your troubles,” said Madison, a junior swingman. “And he’s learned.”

It’s been a trying year for Idaho (9-14, 5-8 WAC) in part because of a string of late-game collapses. But Barone has flourished – as a force in and around the paint, and as a leader and teammate – since the “maturing turning point in his life,” as his dad put it.

He’s the top rebounder in the WAC, and he’s averaging double-digit points (17.1 per game) and rebounds (10.6) in conference play. His 11 double-doubles are the most among WAC players and more than he had in the previous three years combined.

Barone has never been consistently this good, but he’s always been steady.

Earlier this year Barone became the top low-post scorer in school history (his 1,294 points are good for sixth all-time). And he’ll finish his career at the top or in the top three at UI in games played, rebounds, free throws made and free throws attempted.

Part of his success is due to longevity. But he’s most proud of the achievements that can be traced to the work he’s put in.

Barone was primarily a perimeter player growing up in Garden Grove, Calif. He’s played basketball since fourth grade, but it wasn’t until high school that he shot up like a cornstalk.

The July before his freshman year of high school, he was 5-8. By the start of basketball season that October, he was 6-2 – and he grew another 8 inches the next four years.

Tim Floyd and Gib Arnold at USC were two of the coaches at major-conference programs who courted Barone. But he acknowledged that he had no interest in schoolwork during high school, and he didn’t qualify academically.

With other schools out of the picture, the door opened for Idaho. The newly hired Verlin, who had recruited Barone at Utah State, got clearance to bring him to Moscow with the stipulation that he sit out the first year and pay his own tuition and expenses while meeting NCAA academic requirements.

Barone has played in every game since that first difficult redshirt year, and he graduated in 4 1/2 years.

“I just dedicated myself to it, and I guess it’s paid off,” he said.

For him and for Idaho.

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