Idaho freshman forward Arkadiy Mkrtychyan recalls Vandals coaches constantly lighting up his cell phone when he attended Columbia Christian High in Portland. Another suitor for his national letter of intent signature was the local Portland State Vikings.
Mkrtychyan didn't consider the Vikings very much because Idaho was more tenacious in its recruiting efforts.
Idaho is hoping that recruiting coup can help the Vandals jump Portland State in the Big Sky standings Thursday night when the two schools collide at the Cowan Spectrum.
The next month presents eight nerve-racking games for Idaho, all of which will be crucial in determining whether Idaho will qualify for the Big Sky Tournament or not. Currently the Vandals (9-12, 4-6) sit at eighth in the conference, only a half-game ahead of North Dakota and the elimination line.
A win against the Vikings would jump the Vandals over Portland State (11-10, 5-6) in the standings. A loss would make things more difficult with Sacramento State coming to town on Saturday. The Hornets will face Eastern Washington on Thursday in a first-place clash in Cheney.
"It’s a big week no question about it with where we’re at in the conference standings and with where they’re at and with Sacramento State coming in at the end of the week," Idaho coach Don Verlin said. "We’ve been pretty good at home, hopefully we can continue that."
Verlin cracked a few smiles during his Tuesday press conference due to getting a road split this last weekend, winning at Montana State but dropping a tough game last Saturday to Montana in Missoula.
The win against the Bobcats gave the Vandals some breathing room in the conference tournament race and the hero came from an unlikely source.
Redshirt freshman Jordan Scott sprang from the end of the bench to score a game-high 13 points (tied with Mike Scott ... no relation) in Idaho's 80-71 triumph in Bozeman.
Foul trouble to Mkrtchyan, Bira Seck and Paulin Mpawe led to the opportunity for Scott. He was ready.
"Jordan stepped up and played well and I couldn’t have been happier for Jordan Scott. A guy who’s practiced hard all year, comes to practice every day, got his opportunity and made the most of it when we were at Montana State," Verlin said.
The Vandals have been somewhat frustrated with the difference in officiating in the Big Sky compared to the Western Athletic Conference, with Verlin even admitting earlier in the season that some Big Sky coaches had warmed him to prepare for the officiating he's going to see.
Idaho committed 43 combined fouls in its two games over the weekend.
"We have to fix up the details, maybe (we're) reaching too much. We have to adjust to the officiating a little bit," Verlin said. "We came from a league that was real physical, you could basically maul people. In this league you can’t do that and we have to make sure we can make the adjustment so we can keep our post people on the floor."
For Mkrtychyan it's been a problem of adjusting from high school. The freshman from Moscow, Russia has perpetually been in foul trouble, picking up at least four fouls in eight games this season including the last three.
"High school I didn’t really get any fouls. Here, every move I do I basically get a foul so I need to think about what I do," Mkrtychyan said.
Idaho will try to avenge a 79-76 loss at Sacramento State and a 85-73 loss at Portland State from earlier in the season.
Portland State sliced into the paint when the two teams met in the Rose City. The Vikings hit 22-of-40 from shot attempts inside the arc.
Two days prior Mikh McKinney led a one-man show for Sacramento State with 32 points on 12-of-19 shooting. Connor Hill missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer for Idaho that would've sent the game to overtime.
Verlin believes his team has made the steps necessary to compete with top teams in the conference like Sacramento State.
"We’re getting better, I really believe we’ve started to play better. I thought we played well at Eastern we just couldn’t find a way to finish that game off," Verlin said.