In the fall, the Big Sky Conference makes for a touchy subject at the University of Idaho.
But turn a few calendar pages and the Vandals find the topic downright embraceable.
And now that basketball is back in the Big Sky, it’s easy to get the impression that they never should have left.
“Excluding football,” Vandals coach Don Verlin is quick to qualify, “I think it’s the right place for us to be.”
Except it took the Western Athletic Conference falling apart as a football enterprise to get Idaho back in the Sky after an 18-year absence. Football has found a home in the Sun Belt Conference so it may continue to compete at the FBS level, even as a faction of the fan base believes it, too, should come back to the old neighborhood.
That back-and-forth continues on message boards and barstools, if nowhere that it actually matters. But on hoop’s return, there is no debate. Indeed, irrespective of any new additions to the roster who might prove to have an impact, Idaho’s new/old digs figures to be the most important program development of the 2014-15 season.
“It restores or renews rivalries that Idaho has had for a long time, in a conference setting that’s always more meaningful,” Verlin said. “And to go with the regional part of it, the travel is going to be so much better for our team.
“If I could pick any conference to be in – in our situation – I would tell you the Big Sky.”
Which is not to say anyone is expecting the Vandals to dominate upon their return.
In a poll of the league’s coaches last month, Idaho was picked to finish seventh; media that cover the Sky had the Vandals a spot lower. And that’s in a year when Montana, one of the conference’s perennial toughies, will be fighting for its postseason life.
Naturally, the Vandals aren’t conceding a thing. While Idaho’s roster tilts heavily toward freshmen and sophomores, the staff thinks its guard play will keep it afloat in a guard-dominant league – providing there’s some rebounding and defensive presence.
And by way of a barometer, Verlin’s first six Idaho teams were 12-9 against Big Sky opponents – with six of those losses to Montana.
Besides, Idaho’s basketball history in its first run through the Sky was fitful. It took the Vandals 18 years to finish atop the standings and win the conference tournament. Don Monson’s teams went to back-to-back NCAA tournaments in the early 1980s; Kermit Davis repeated the feat later in the decade.
But it could be argued that the program took a major turn south when the school opted to abandon the league.
Joe Cravens presided over Idaho’s last Big Sky team in 1996 – when athletic director Pete Liske, enamored with the possibility of luring back Davis, fired his coach after just three seasons. Davis then bailed after one year – Idaho’s first in the Big West – and the school’s next three head coaches were all fired before Verlin was coaxed into the job. In the meantime, average attendance – already modest at 2,763 in that last Sky season – plummeted 60 percent by 2013, before a small uptick last year.
But the Sky has seen some slippage itself. Last year its RPI was 28th among 32 Division I conferences. The year before Idaho left the league, it was 15.
“But one thing I do see in the Big Sky is that there are a lot of good coaches in the league – and a good mix,” Verlin said. “You’ve got some young guys, some first-time head coaches, and some older guys who’ve done it for a while. From what we experienced last year in the WAC, that jumped out at me.”
But not nearly as much as the travel.
As the WAC grappled with the fallout from realignment and keep itself alive, it was forced to expand well beyond the West – and the time members spent on the road. Last year, the Vandals had to find their way to far-flung schools like Texas-Pan American, Grand Canyon, Chicago State and Missouri-Kansas City. They covered nearly 11,000 air miles on five trips, not counting any busing to regional airports.
That figure will fall to something like 4,600 miles this year – the longest trip a 1,400-mile swing to Sacramento and Portland. The Vandals will bus to Eastern Washington, and from Bozeman to Missoula and home on the Montana trip.
“The biggest thing is not taking three flights every time we leave here anymore,” Verlin said. “To Weber and Idaho State, it’s a flight to Salt Lake City. To NAU, it’s Spokane to Phoenix and some bus time. Southern Utah is direct to Las Vegas and a bus ride. It helps a little that we don’t play North Dakota and Northern Colorado.
“I listen to the coaches in the Big Sky complain about travel. This is a walk in the park.”
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