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Idaho Vandals love the Rose City as a fertile recruiting ground

Arkadiy Mkrtychyan’s face lights up with a grin at the memory. Victor Sanders tells the story.

A couple of years ago, in the summer following their sophomore season at the University of Idaho, the two Vandals from Portland went to an open gym at Portland State University. “We picked up one of their players, his roommate and a walk-on,” says Sanders. “We ran eight games straight.”

It’s 10 straight in Mkrtychyan’s recounting. However, you get the idea. It’s an anecdote to support the point these basketball players can go home again. But it must also create a what’s-wrong-with-this-picture moment for anyone associated with the Vikings. When Idaho and PSU play Saturday at Cowan Spectrum in Moscow, each team will have the same number of players from Portland, three, and the Vandals feature five players overall from Oregon this year.

PSU has certainly done something right. Under first-year coach Barret Peery, the Vikings have raced to a 10-5 record, including victories over Utah State, Stanford and California, and they played Butler to a two-point loss. Still, when Idaho can field a credible lineup of Portland products Sanders (18.9 points per game), Mkrtychyan (3.9 rebounds per game) and promising freshman Geno West, plus Albany’s Chad Sherwood (shooting 50 percent on three-pointers) and his brother Nate Sherwood (4.9 rebounds and 10.9 points per game) Peery must be making a mental note to raise the height of whatever recruiting wall he’s trying to build around his home state, especially where the Vandals are concerned.

Poaching Oregon has been profitable for Idaho. In addition to the current players, Idaho has benefited in the past, particularly from Portland’s Jefferson High. Jefferson alum Stephen Madison graduated from UI in 2013 as its second-leading all-time scorer. Mac Hopson, a Western Athletic Conference all-league performer, finished his Idaho career in 2010; and Hopson’s father, Phil Hopson, a member of the UI Hall of Fame, starred on the 1981-82 team that went 27-3, achieved a top 10 ranking and made it to the round of 16 of the NCAA tournament. Don Monson, the coach of that greatest UI team, had some useful advice for current coach Don Verlin when he took the UI job in 2008. When seeking players, don’t overlook the Northwest, Monson told Verlin.

“We work real hard, not just in Portland but all over the Northwest,” Verlin said.

“We’re constantly building relationships with high school coaches, AAU coaches and former players. We’ve been very lucky, that’s for sure.”

Idaho occasionally competes with PSU and the University of Portland for players, according to Verlin. Mkrtychyan and West say they drew some interest from the staff of former PSU coach Tyler Geving. West acknowledges, though, he was never fired with the passion to be a Viking. Growing up in Portland, “the only time I ever went there,” he tells UI teammates, “is when you all played.”

Overlooking Sanders, a Big Sky all-conference player and a game-changing force who is rapidly ascending the UI all-time scoring and steals lists, may come back to haunt PSU as both the Vandals and Vikings are starting conference play as top tier Big Sky teams. “They didn’t recruit me,” Sanders says. However, “even if they had offered me, I would not have gone. I wanted to get away from home.”

Chad Sherwood remembers attending PSU camps when young, but growing up in Albany he was always in the orbit of Oregon State. “I’m a Beavers kid,” he says. Nate Sherwood keeps an eye on all the Division I Oregon teams, and unless they are playing Idaho, “I always root for the Oregon team.”

Nonetheless, there are bragging rights riding on the outcome of Idaho-PSU games, say West and Chad Sherwood. “Being from there, it means a little more,” Sherwood says.

“One of their guys told me they were going to win the conference,” Sanders said. If a spoken sentence can contain both a tone of dismissal and skepticism, this one did.

Nate Sherwood and Mkrtychyan are also anticipating Saturday’s game.

“They’ve got a good program. Hat’s off,” said Sherwood of the Vikings.

“We don’t know a lot about them,” Mkrtychyan said. “They’ve got new players, a new coach, a new system, new plays.

“We’re excited to play them.”

Jefferson High, which Sanders and West attended, has produced a pair of NBA players, Terrence Jones and Terrence Ross, and all the Vandals from Oregon are quick to point to former Lake Oswego star and current Cleveland Cavaliers forward Kevin Love as the foremost representative of basketball in their home state. Asked to characterize the game there, Sanders calls it “underrated.”

“Especially for guards,” West, a guard, adds. “They’re overlooked a lot.”

“It’s been like that forever,” says Sanders.

Still, value is in the eye of the beholder. Verlin looks at Oregon and Portland and sees a fertile and diverse recruiting territory. The Hopsons, Madison, Sanders, West, Mkrtychyan and the Sherwoods “are all different players,” he says. “It’s not like you go to Portland to get a big or a guard. But we’ve been fortunate to get some good ones.”


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