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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Blanchette: Sarbaugh a happy wanderer

Chris Sarbaugh (10) will join the Idaho Vandals for a basketball trip to China this summer. (Joshua Polson / File Associated Press)

Let’s check out the dust jacket of the book on Chris Sarbaugh, the one titled, “Four Colleges in Five Years.”

Well, that has to be an easy read, right? A basketball itinerant like that must be a hard case or a flake. Uncoachable and incorrigible. A locker-room lawyer. Maybe an inflated sense of self-worth. Never happy. A hodgepodge of random credits in search of a degree.

But wait, there’s this review from his coach at the University of Idaho, Don Verlin:

“I tell him just about every day, ‘I’m glad you’re here.’ He’s my kind of guy. He makes everything go.”

Sure, but those blurbs are always gushy hyperbole. How can we take Verlin’s rave at face value?

Maybe by considering that after failing twice in recruiting him out Gonzaga Prep and then out of North Idaho College, Verlin reloaded for a third try when Sarbaugh was shopping for a final place to land.

This time Verlin got his man. And the Vandals got an unlikely catalyst for an unlikely surge that’s cast them as an early contender in the Big Sky Conference basketball race.

That extended drama continues today at noon, when the Vandals visit Reese Court for a test against last year’s champ, Eastern Washington. The Eagles, too, figure to be back in the hunt, though when both teams launched Big Sky play on the road last weekend, it was Idaho that came back 2-0 and Eastern with unhappier baggage.

“I don’t know how much I’d read into that,” Verlin said. “Those results could have flip-flopped, easily.”

Nonetheless, to this point the Vandals have made themselves the story. They’re 10-5, have one of the Big Sky’s two victories over a Power Five conference member and the league’s best RPI. Not too shabby for a team that lost four of its top five scorers from 2015 and has seen the other, forward Arkadiy Mkrtychyan, in something of a sophomore slump after dislocating a kneecap.

But guards Perrion Callandret and Victor Sanders have capably replaced the departed scorers, and the Vandals have forged a defensive identity last year’s team didn’t have.

Then there’s the impact recruit – Chris Sarbaugh. And his 4.7 scoring average.

“I had good enough players,” Verlin said. “I needed a guy to hold the whole thing together.”

And that turned out to be the guy who’d hopscotched his way through three schools. But, to borrow from Verlin, don’t read too much into that.

From Prep, Sarbaugh had walked on and redshirted at Gonzaga before realizing he was too impatient for the gestation period that might birth another Mike Hart or David Stockton. A year at NIC led to a ride and steady minutes for two seasons at San Diego. But then Bill Grier was fired last spring and Sarbaugh didn’t sense new coach Lamont Smith saw him as a significant part of the transition team.

By this time, Sarbaugh had his degree in business administration – and an escape hatch via the NCAA’s increasingly controversial rule allowing graduates to transfer schools and be eligible immediately.

“I knew I’d come back close to home,” he said. “I love my family and there’s nothing like having them watch me play – and hearing my grandpa in the stands yelling, ‘Shoot the ball!’”

Officious educrats are mulling ways to modify the graduate transfer rule, because freedom’s just another thing that can’t be entrusted to the college athlete. Sarbaugh’s take on the subject seems relevant.

“It’s tough as a coach,” he acknowledged. “Maybe you’re at a mid-major and you’re not recruiting a point guard or a big because you have the conference player of the year and he comes in at the end of the season and says, ‘I’m going to Baylor’ or someplace.

“But as a player? You put in the time, you did what you came to do in four years and you have this chance to test yourself at a higher level – or at a place that might just fit you better. I think it’s good, especially since the NCAA has taken away all appeals for transferring and playing right away (for hardship reasons).”

But the drumbeat to close the window continues. Even an otherwise savvy fellow like writer Bob Ryan calls the rule “a farce” perpetuating “nothing more than a modern-day version of the Tramp Athlete.”

Meet Chris Sarbaugh, Tramp Athlete: By the end of the summer, he’ll have a masters in adult organizational leadership, having hustled up to UI last summer to get a head start. Oh, and found a happy finish to his playing days as a starter in a resurgent program.

Yeah, that’s one bad rule.

“I’ve probably set a record for schools played at,” Sarbaugh said with a laugh. “This is not what I’d envisioned. But it’s been a great experience. I’ve made so many friends and played for great coaches along the way.

“For most people, four schools in five years would imply not having a good career. For me, it’s been unreal. I’ve loved it.”