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Idaho enters Big Sky men’s basketball tournament as conference’s hottest team

Idaho guard Victor Sanders, shown against Montana State in the 2016-17 season, led the Vandals with 29 points against George Fox. (Kelly Gorham / Montana State via AP)
Idaho guard Victor Sanders, shown against Montana State in the 2016-17 season, led the Vandals with 29 points against George Fox. (Kelly Gorham / Montana State via AP)

MOSCOW, Idaho – For two weeks in China, it was just them.

On their summer trip to the Far East in June, Idaho men’s basketball players didn’t have the cellphone service to check Instagram or Snapchat in the down time between games. The coaches couldn’t call recruits. So they all spent time with each other instead.

The Vandals had traveled to China to play in a tournament against national teams from Macedonia, Iran and other countries. The extra games and practices before the season were valuable, but the time off the court was even more fruitful.

“You’re kind of out there by yourself,” Idaho coach Don Verlin said. “Our cellphones don’t work. We had to talk to each other. If I had to tell you one thing that I think that trip did for us, it brought us closer together.”

Nine months later, Verlin said this team is the arguably the most tightknit group he’s coached in nine seasons at Idaho – and it shows on the court.

The Vandals (17-12) enter the Big Sky Conference tournament in Reno, Nevada, as the league’s hottest team. They’ve won four in a row and 11 of their last 14 going into this afternoon’s quarterfinal matchup with Montana (16-15).

Tipoff is slated for 2:35 at the Reno Events Center.

Fourth-seeded Idaho split the season series with No. 5 seed UM, each team winning on their rival’s home court. Asked about those two games, UI point guard Victor Sanders quickly mentioned the Vandals’ loss last year to the Grizzlies in the Big Sky tourney semifinals as the team’s chief source of motivation.

“They sent us home last year, so we’ve kind of got a little vengeance in us and a little more hunger, which adds fuel to the fire,” said Sanders, a first-team all-Big Sky selection who averages 21.6 points per game.

Idaho tied for third place in the Big Sky with Weber State, a nice accomplishment considering it started conference play 1-3 and has been without senior starting point guard Perrion Callendret (knee) since the third game of the year.

Sanders assumed the point guard role midway through the season, and the Vandals have taken on a personality centered on defense, rebounding and grit – exactly what Verlin wanted to see when his team was struggling.

UI leads the Big Sky in field-goal percentage defense (.414), scoring defense (71.9 points per game) and rebounding margin (+3.6).

After losing by 13 to Montana at home in early January, the Vandals have “matured a lot as a basketball team,” Verlin said.

Part of that maturation has been the development of complementary pieces around Sanders. Junior post Arkadiy Mkrtychyan, who was born in Turkmenistan and went to high school in Portland, averaged 13.6 points over the last five games of the year.

North Idaho College transfer BJ Blake, brothers Chad and Nate Sherwood, guards Trevon Allen and Pat Ingram and scrappy forward Jordan Scott have also taken turns making contributions in different areas.

“One of our mottos is ‘15 strong’ – just everybody doing what their strength is,” Scott said, referring to the team’s 15-person roster. “So like ‘Ark,’ he’s been playing great recently. … And it’s awesome that it’s coming this time of the year because it’s tournament time.”

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