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John Blanchette: Forget about past at UI

Lost in the academic hand-wringing and presidential apology at the University of Idaho this week over assorted vulgarities perpetuated by students and others at the recent basketball cotillion with Boise State was a bulletin of Richter magnitude.

There were fans at a Vandals game?

Look, not to dismiss any over-the-top grossitude in the undergraduate seats – shame-shame, guys – but the guess here is that the Broncos were considerably less disturbed by the verbal grenades than by the realization that something close enough to competitive basketball is being committed at UI these days to entice 4,731 thrill-seekers into the Cowan Spectrum.

There have been years when it took six games to get that many people through the door.

OK, it was last year.

We bring this up at the risk of violating one of coach Don Verlin’s commandments for his first Vandals team: Don’t look back.

There isn’t much to see and what there is isn’t much good – nearly a full decade of losing, a couple of respectable seasons in their old Big West digs and a recent nadir that made postgame custodial duty at the Cow the biggest cake work-study job on campus.

No one is fitting the current Vandals for rings just yet – they’re 10-11 – but already they have beaten Boise State for the first time in eight years and posted their first WAC victories over Nevada and New Mexico State. Here they are at the midpoint of the Western Athletic Conference schedule at the midpoint of the standings, in a tie for fourth place. If a winnable road game Saturday at Hawaii gets won, they could be better than that.

It might not seem like much to you, but it may be the winter’s most unexpected college basketball development hereabouts.

Verlin is a first-year head coach, but a long apprenticeship under the uber-successful Stew Morrill at Colorado State and Utah State provided him with a solid blueprint – and schooling in saying all the right things. The successes are appreciated but it’s still about “competing one possession at a time.” Progress has been a product of “the guys who were here in the program being willing to change and sacrifice.”

Well, maybe not all the right things.

“What I’ve stressed to all of the players,” Verlin said, “is to forget about the past – I say it a lot.

“Now, that probably sounds cold, and if I was the coach here before, that would probably make me mad. But I’m not the smartest guy in the world and I really didn’t know how to change the culture here and that’s the hardest part of the job.”

Well, there are ways to nudge that along. Institutional commitment – something Verlin’s predecessor didn’t have – in the form of a five-year contract is a pretty good message. Nor does it hurt to have an Alpha dog who is both the best player in the program and a Vandal legacy.

Guard Mac Hopson put in a year at North Idaho College and another in an unrequited stop at Washington State, but his father, Phil, was part of Idaho’s proudest basketball moments and somehow it seemed inevitable that the son would end up in Moscow, too.

He isn’t just putting in time. He is UI’s leading scorer (16.9) and playmaker (6.0 assists), and is shooting 49 percent from beyond the 3-point arc.

“He’s been unbelievable,” Verlin said. “He’s a very good player, but what people need to know is that he wants to be here – no matter what happened along the way, he really wants to be at the University of Idaho and see things through, and that’s proven every day in practice.”

It’s not a one-man operation, but it is a tight unit – Verlin’s rotation has been pared down to generally seven players.

“Our system is based on execution and repetition,” Verlin said. “You can’t make the same mistakes over and over – you’ve got to get better every day. So I’m playing the guys who make the least amount of mistakes. That’s the way you win close games. So I’ve limited some opportunities. Have I given up on eight, nine and 10? No. But at this point, we’re not going to change much.”

It’s a stretch to say you could have seen this coming. In the non-conference season, the Vandals endured expected blowouts at the hands of two ranked teams (Michigan State and Gonzaga) and some what-else-is-new losses – though one of those, to Idaho State, was when Verlin saw the first real signs of some siccum. Then the Vandals opened the WAC with four of five games on the road – three against teams who had shared in the league’s bizarre four-way tie for first a year ago.

They only won one of the roadies, but they didn’t wilt.

This has opened up the horizons for Idaho’s woebegone fanbase, a luxury in which Verlin will not indulge. Long-term rebuilds start with short-term solutions.

“What I’ve really tried to do this first year is concentrate on coaching this team, these guys,” he said, “and making this team as good as it can be. This is a long process and there’s a time to look at the big picture, but it’s not now. Let’s just get these guys better and let the chips fall and go from there.”

Without looking back, of course.

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