MOSCOW, Idaho – If the Idaho Vandals break through in the quarterfinals of the WAC tournament for the first time and rip off a few postseason wins, they’ll probably look back at a lull in their schedule in late January and early February as the turning point.
Idaho had lost 12 of 20 games, and six of its last eight, when Don Verlin and his assistants were presented with almost two full weeks of practice time – just one game in 13 days – to tinker. Which is exactly what they did.
The coaches decided to switch personnel assignments during inbounds plays after made baskets, a seemingly small shift. But it was part of a larger plan from Verlin to ratchet up the pace offensively – a move that’s helped ignite a late-season offensive awakening.
The suddenly explosive Vandals, 14-17 and winners of four of five, open the WAC tournament today against the University of Missouri-Kansas City (10-19). Tipoff is 2:30 at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas.
In the last six games, fifth-seeded UI has increased its output from 70.3 points per game to 83.5 points. It’s shooting nearly 11 percentage points better from behind the 3-point line and averaging nearly four more assists per game.
The Vandals have looked like a different team, and that’s because in a way they are. They’ve moved from a mostly halfcourt offense to one that relishes transition opportunities.
“We’ve been really moving our ball well, we’ve been pushing our ball well, our assist-to-turnover ratio has gone the other way,” Verlin said. “So that’s got to be there for us, and it has been the last four weeks.”
In Verlin’s demanding halfcourt offense that he brought six years ago from Utah State, the Vandals run a labyrinth of set plays. Assistant Tim Murphy holds up a binder from the sideline with each set on a white card, and the players are expected to run each play with precision.
That hasn’t been a problem in the past, but UI returned just three players who had logged minutes last year. With 10 newcomers, most of whom were more comfortable in an up-tempo style, Verlin’s system wasn’t sinking in.
“I think we had a lot of overthinking going on out there,” Murphy said. “There’s a lot of memorization.”
And now, after the shift to a more freewheeling offense?
“I think it freed up their minds more than anything else,” Murphy said. “And when you do that, you give confidence to them. We let them just make plays.”
The change started in UI’s first game after its mini-break, a 73-67 upset of New Mexico State. During what turned out to be the signature win of the regular season, the coaches noticed after a few of the Aggies’ baskets that everyone except for Mike Scott or Glen Dean, the team’s point guards, dashed up the court.
This was a solid indication that the players had bought into Verlin’s new full-court emphasis. But there was a problem: No one had stayed back to inbound the ball.
When the coaching staff saw momentary lapses like this, “we’d all sit there and go, ‘We’ve got to expect this,’ ” Murphy said. “We put (the change) in in two weeks.”
UI no longer has Hill inbound the ball after opponents make shots. Instead, Bira Seck or Stephen Madison – whoever plays the “four” position – takes the ball out to allow Hill and Idaho’s wings to get out in transition.
This is Idaho’s last WAC tourney before joining the Big Sky this summer in all sports but football. The program is 0-5 in the event under Verlin and 1-7 overall, with the one win coming in an opening-round game in 2007.
If the Vandals have the same success as they did at UMKC last weekend, they’ll find themselves in new territory – with a spot in the semifinals on Friday.