The last time the University of Idaho had a winning season (22-9 in 2017-18), the Vandals’ second-leading all-time scorer, Victor Sanders, averaged 19 points a game. His ability to score in bunches could change the narrative of a contest. It allowed Idaho to rally back from opponents’ runs and propelled the Vandals on scoring sprees of their own. Defenses that had to account for Sanders too often left skilled teammates like B.J. Blake, Nate Sherwood and Trevon Allen free to dominate in their own right.
So far, this year’s Idaho team, 0-11, lacks such a dynamic scoring capability. Damen Thacker is leading Idaho and averaging 11.5 points a game. But in a pair of defeats to Northern Colorado last week, Idaho displayed some intriguing production from its big men. Senior Scott Blakney, 6-8, and averaging 10.9 points per game for the season, scored 8 and a career-high 23 points, respectively, against the Bears. University High School product Tanner Christensen is a 6-10, 260-pound freshman. He comes to the Vandals following a two-year church mission and his game is much more robust than a typical freshman’s. In the pair against UNC, he accounted for 16 points, 12 rebounds and blocked two shots.
Blakney and Christensen haven’t been on the court together – yet. However, “we’ve played around with it in practice,” Vandals coach Zac Claus says. Working against employing that rotation in a game is the fact one of the bigs would have to chase wings and shooting guards on defense, according to Claus. But if Idaho could begin to take control of games from inside, opponents would have to adjust their own lineups.
As things stand now, the Vandals are limited in ways to positively affect a game. They play decent transition defense but don’t run themselves. “Until we bring the turnovers down and do a better job on defense, that’s not going to happen,” Claus acknowledged.
Against Northern Colorado, they could not match the Bears from the perimeter. UNC won both games with 3-point shooting. In the 74-54 opener on Thursday, the Bears hit 12 of 24 attempts from beyond the arc while Idaho converted just 4 of 13. In the 75-61 rematch on Saturday, UNC made 11 of 25 three-pointers. Idaho made just one, on 10 attempts.
The Vandals play host to Weber State on Jan. 28 and Jan. 30, and perimeter shooting will probably play an even greater role in those games. The Wildcats are Big Sky Conference bluebloods, always a team to be reckoned with. They are 5-3 this year and probably shoot 3s better than Northern Colorado and rely on them more. In a 124-44 win against outclassed Yellowstone Christian, Weber State hit a team record 22 of 33 3-point shots. More instructive, though, the Wildcats split a series with Portland State. In a 94-66 win, they hit 10 of 19 from the arc. But in a 74-72 loss, they were held to just 1 of 11 on 3s.
As he tries to get Idaho over the threshold to its first win, Claus must feel like the owner of an old house. Fix one thing, and immediately something else needs attention. With Thacker at the point, Idaho did a much better job getting into its offense in the second game against Northern Colorado than in the first. A 19-2 second-half run by the Bears had allowed UNC to pull away from the Vandals in the first meeting.
On defense, the Vandals also did a better job of frustrating UNC’s dribble penetration in the rematch making it harder for the Bears to get good looks from the perimeter. The Vandals weren’t consistent, though, and TreShon Smoots buried three treys in as many possessions in the first half. These turned a narrow 22-19 deficit into a disheartening 31-21 disadvantage. But showing a resilience that was absent when UNC went on its big run in the first game, by the end of the half, Idaho had closed the gap to 37-34.
“We can take a couple of punches,” Claus said. Still, Idaho seemed to lose focus as the game wore on. Midway through the second half, the Vandals were within five points but were outscored 23-14 the rest of the way.
“We play a 40-minute game,” a frustrated Claus said afterwards. “We’ve got to play a complete one.”
To the extent they are able to stay in games, the Vandals owe a lot to Thacker’s defense. Apparently, defense is not just a hobby for him but a career. In the second game, he backpedaled like a cornerback to thwart UNC’s Daylen Kountz from scoring on a fast break after an Idaho turnover. Earlier, in an untimely switch, Thacker, 5-11, found himself matched up with seven-foot Theo Hughes at the edge of the lane. Hughes tried to back him down but couldn’t. Eventually, Thacker fouled Hughes, preventing a basket, and Idaho got a defensive stop when the Bears were unable to score after inbounding the ball.
“He is one of our best defenders,” Claus said.
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