MOSCOW, Idaho – The first day of basketball practice looked like – basketball practice. Running, drills, coaching. In this way, the year was already off to a hopeful start.
The issues surrounding a turbulent offseason for the University of Idaho – including the dismissal of coach Don Verlin for alleged NCAA violations, an exodus of seven players from a team that won only five games last season, and a late change in the coaching staff when Kirk Earlywine accepted a buyout and was replaced by Doug Novsek – were apparently resolved over the summer when the players were attending classes and taking part in pickup games.
“Our chemistry is already pretty solid,” senior leader Trevon Allen said after Idaho’s first workout. “Had the guys go hard today, worked really hard and stuff like that. For our first practice, it was flowing really well.”
To prepare himself to play both guard positions and small forward, Allen added 7 pounds, on the way to what he hopes will eventually put him at 195 pounds by the time the season starts.
Perhaps most significant, the NCAA’s enforcement arm is not looming over the program, according to interim coach Zac Claus. UI is abiding by self-imposed penalties limiting recruiting and practice.
A one-game suspension that would have applied to Verlin had he remained coach will not be enforced against the new coach, Claus confirmed. Idaho’s new associate athletic director for compliance, Heath Senour, has given basketball program leaders unambiguous guidelines for acceptable behavior where the NCAA is concerned, Claus said.
A week into the preseason, the Vandals’ pursuit of consistency and team coherence continues, Claus said.
“We’re getting a collective, good, responsive effort,” he said.
What kind of team Idaho will field this year remains somewhat obscure.
“We’re still trying to figure that one out,” Claus said.
Last season, a young Vandals group had difficulty finishing games but could shoot the lights out when it was on. Two years ago, Idaho featured a salty bunch, led by seniors Vic Sanders and B.J. Blake, that was almost never out of a game in fashioning a 22-9 record, 14-4 in the Big Sky Conference.
The current corps has attributes of each, Claus said. For one thing, it has more experience than last year’s team that had 10 freshmen and sophomores. This year, there are nine juniors and seniors.
“These guys have played. They are a little stronger, tougher. They have played a college season,” Claus said.
New guards Ja’Vary Christmas, a 6-3 junior from Sheridan (Wyoming) College, and Keyshaad Dixon, a 6-1 junior from Ranger (Texas) College, led teams to the National Junior College Athletic Association’s tournament.
“They have played deep into March. They know what it means to play at a high level,” Claus said.
The current Vandals may not be as eager or as deadly from the 3-point arc as last year’s team, but they can shoot. Allen, Christmas and B.J. Simons, a 6-1 sophomore who last played at Trinity Valley (Texas) College, have given the Vandals a perimeter game in the preseason. Gabe Quinnett, a 6-4 freshman from Moscow, has also been effective from outside, Claus said.
Khadim Samb played 21 games for the Vandals as a freshman, averaging 4 points and 2.4 rebounds per game. He is building on that experience and benefitting from increased strength to turn heads in workouts this year. “Since summer, his work ethic has been unbelievable,” Claus said.
Two forwards have recovered from injuries. Redshirt junior Marquell Fraser played only eight games before being lost for the remainder of the season with a hip injury. Junior Chance Garvin played in 18 games before suffering a shoulder injury.
“Those are two guys we are counting on to be two of our hardest-working guys,” Claus said.
Idaho returns experience inside with 6-8 junior Scott Blakney. He averaged 7.5 points and 4.7 rebounds last year, and the Vandals will get a notable boost in the paint in January when 7-0 sophomore Jack Wilson, an Oregon State transfer, becomes eligible.
As the Vandals continue to put distance between themselves and their troubled offseason, they are getting closer to Claus’ goal for his team.
“We’ve got length, toughness. I like this group,” he said. “I like our chances once we get into January and February.”
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