1 Growing up quickly. Coach Don Verlin’s eligible roster includes nine freshmen and sophomores, plus a JC transfer. Not that this is all so different – Verlin had 10 new faces last year, though half were seasoned transfers. He knows he needs to get them game-ready quickly, which is why he scheduled two exhibitions rather than just one, plus a doors-closed scrimmage. There are also two long trips to accelerate the bonding process, and rivalry games with Boise State and Washington State in a nine-day span to ramp up the intensity. Soon enough, some of the kids are going to have to play older than their years. One early possibility: 6-5 freshman Victor Sanders, who the Vandals landed a week before school started.
2 Replacing Stephen Madison’s production. That’s 20 points and eight rebounds that left with the 6-6 forward, Idaho’s leading scorer in 23 games last year. This should be no bulletin: it’ll be by committee. “I’ve told our guys, some of the best teams have four of five guys average in double figures,” Verlin said. “We’ll be different. This is going to have to be a team effort.”
Along those lines …
3 No Carmelos or LeBrons. Verlin needs leadership from his three seniors – guards Connor Hill and Mike Scott, and forward Bira Seck. But he doesn’t need anything superhuman. “I’ve told them: ‘You’ve got to be yourself,’ “ Verlin said. “Mike Scott is good enough. Connor is good enough. We want leadership, yes, but in the context of who they are.”
4 Inside moves. The Big Sky is a guard’s league, and Idaho is deep and capable at that position. But cracking the upper echelon requires some inside presence, and the Vandals are suspect there. Seck is a dirty-work type, but nursed a bad foot through camp and JC transfer Nahshon George was set back by the mumps. If Ty Egbert doesn’t make strides in his third year in the program, freshmen Arkadiy Mktuchyan and Nate Sherwood will have to deliver. “It’s the key to our basketball team,” Verlin agreed.
5 Develop a defensive identity. The Vandals were next-to-last in the Western Athletic Conference a year ago in defense against the field goal and steals, and last in blocked shots – and that league wasn’t murderers’ row. Verlin’s teams generally know how to score, but there are lots of teams like that in the Sky. Idaho has to start stringing together stops. Some of this is related to developing an inside presence: the Vandals must establish a rebounding mindset, low-block muscle and someone to protect the rim.
Subscribe to The Spokesman-Review’s sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.