Emerging from a season of discontent even William Shakespeare’s malevolent King Richard would have found bleak, the rebuilt Idaho Vandals are looking for better days. And where Richard cried forlornly for “a horse, a horse,” the Vandals have the prospect of one racing to their rescue in January. Oregon State junior transfer Jack Wilson will be eligible then. Horse, indeed. A 7-footer quick as a small forward, built like a tight end, who can shoot threes like a guard improves almost everything on a basketball court.
Until then, however, Idaho may have a time of it trying to emerge from the shadow of last season’s young team that plummeted to 5 wins following 5 years of averaging nearly 20. That unsatisfying campaign was only the start of the Vandals’ woes. Coach Don Verlin was suspended and subsequently fired in June following allegations of several seemingly minor NCAA violations, and seven players left the program.
Interim coach Zac Claus says the team he stitched together from four key returners plus Wilson and 10 newcomers is talented and fully invested in playing for the Vandals. However, a season-opening exhibition loss to Division II Central Washington, 88-81, suggests Idaho’s transition game is far ahead of its set offense. While the Vandals showed they could play tight, harassing defense they only did it sporadically and not against Division I talent.
Senior Trevon Allen is Idaho’s leader. Though spending time at small forward, he has played both guard positions and can seamlessly shift from front court to back. Allen led the Vandals in scoring at 14 points last year and averaged four rebounds and three assists. Marquell Fraser returns from a season cut short by injury after 8 games with a healed hip and, seemingly, an expanded role. Last year, at 6-3, 200 pounds, Fraser was a rebounder and defensive enforcer. Against CWU, he grabbed six boards and made a steal but also lit up the Wildcats with 20 points on 7-of-14 shooting, 3 of 4 from beyond the arc.
Ja’Vary Christmas, 6-3, originally an Oregon redshirt before leading Sheridan College to the National Junior College Athletic Association tournament last year, and Keyhaad Dixon, 6-1, who led his junior college Ranger College team to the NJCAA title game, should be key newcomers at guard. Junior swingman Chance Garvin, 6-4, added valuable depth and experience but suffered a knee injury in the opening exhibition.
Scott Blakney, 6-8 junior, averaged 7.5 points and 4.7 rebounds a year ago. He and graduate transfer Quinton Forrest, 6-4, 230, will anchor Idaho’s interior until Wilson can play. Forrest had stops at Bethune Cookman and Jacksonville before coming to Idaho. He is an adept scorer inside and a powerful rebounder.
Babacar Thiombane, 6-7, opened the season as a reserve but may find his way into the starting lineup soon. He averaged 9.1 points, 7 rebounds and 1.1 blocks last year at East Los Angeles College. Three steals and two blocks in the opening exhibition keyed by his quickness, jumping ability and long arms suggest Thiombane is up to the task of guarding Big Sky players. Khadim Samb, 6-6, began finding playing time for the Vandals as a freshman about one-third of the way through the season. He finished averaging four points and two rebounds in 21 games. He and Thiombane are similarly skilled.
Backcourt reserves include Isaac Berglund, a 6-2 freshman from Deer Park, and Gabe Quinnett, 6-4, from Moscow High School.
Following four years as an assistant at Idaho, Zac Claus took over as interim head coach in July. Before his tenure in Moscow, Claus spent four years as an assistant and six as director of basketball operations at Nevada. Before that, he was at Sacramento State three years as an assistant and spent a year each as director of basketball operations and as an assistant at Portland State. He also coached for a year each at Nebraska Wesleyan and at Austin College. Claus played two seasons for Eastern Washington University, graduating in 1998. He had prior stops at Creighton and Nebraska.
Tim Murphy returns for a ninth season working with Idaho’s big men. Newcomers to the coaching staff are Doug Novsek and Kenny Tripp.
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