MOSCOW, Idaho – Return on investment is highly prized at a place like the University of Idaho. The Vandals never enjoy the security of a money clip fat with $100s. They take on the challenge of NCAA Division I athletics with a pocketful of singles.
Someone like Damen Thacker is the prime example of maximizing resources.
Offered a chance to walk on to the basketball team last year after two years at Walla Walla Community College, Thacker ended up starting 23 games, averaging 6 points, 2.5 rebounds and 1.2 assists.
As a senior, he has improved those numbers to 11.6 points, 3.1 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game.
Only now is Idaho having to pay for that production. Thacker was awarded a scholarship on his birthday this month.
“It definitely helps. I am so thankful for being put on scholarship. Having tuition and books covered, not worrying financially helps dramatically,” Thacker said.
In walk-ons, Idaho coach Zac Claus said he is “looking for zero-issue guys. They have to do a terrific job in the classroom.”
Claus added they have to be good citizens and teammates, hoping “they will have a skill set that will bring positive things to our team.”
The Vandals are trying not to be overwhelmed by a 0-11 start that included disheartening near-misses against Washington State, Northern Arizona and Southern Utah in nearly empty gyms and arenas bereft of fans who could provide energy to a struggling team. Thacker is a mature, steadying presence and a competitive model for teammates.
“As an older guy and a senior, he knows what it takes, how hard it is to win at this level,” Claus said.
“The young guys look up to him,” he added. “He sets a tone. We have asked him to do more from a scoring standpoint from a year ago, and he has embraced the opportunity to be one of our best defenders.
“(He) has definitely brought a level of toughness to what we do.”
Football might have something to do with that.
Basketball players who come from a football background seem to have an enhanced ability to apply force on the court.
They don’t get bumped off the ball and are hard for an offensive player to move. They stand up to contact and take charges, and on offense they power through diffident defenders.
Thacker played football and baseball in addition to basketball at Mountain View High School in Meridian, Idaho, and played in the Babe Ruth World Series as a 13-year-old. At various times, he thought either of those sports would give him a chance to play in college before focusing on basketball as a senior.
“I was a free safety on defense in high school. I’ve never been one to shy from hitting somebody,” Thacker said.
In basketball, the echo of the football player still resonates.
“Defense is a part of my game,” he said. “It separates me from the next person. I’m not shy about taking charges or trying to keep someone in front of me.”
At 175 pounds, Thacker is strong enough to play that way, but he is on the south side of 6 feet.
“I’m the guy who has to remind him from time to time that he is only 5-10,” Claus said. “A 15-foot jump shot in space is better than trying to force the ball around somebody who is 6-10.”
Before joining the Vandals, Thacker was an AAU teammate of Idaho’s scoring leader from last season, Trevon Allen, who is playing professionally in Poland. Through XBox, the two remain close.
“Me and Trevon talk quite regularly,” Thacker said. “We play XBox a lot, even though there is a 9-hour time difference. Even before he played pro, he was a great mentor and friend to me.”
Allen has provided valuable insight on the pro basketball lifestyle.
“He has given me a decent feel for what it would be like. If I get the chance, I would love to keep playing. That’s the dream,” Thacker said.
In the meantime, Thacker is afflicted with the typical college student’s angst about the future.
“I don’t even know what’s going to happen next week,” he said. “I talk to my parents all the time about what I’m going to do next year.”
One thing is for sure, he is absolutely content with his decision to become a Vandal, even in a trying senior season bracketed by a pandemic and a rough 0-11 start. Thacker loves playing in his home state, although he wishes his family could come to Moscow to watch him play.
“It’s a great place to be,” Thacker said of Idaho. “There are so many resources. It makes the game so much fun.”
He is focused on improving in basketball’s intricate details, hoping that is the path to eventual wins.
“(We’ve) been dealing with it one day at a time, one week at a time,” he said. “Nothing is promised. We’re thankful for the time we have to play, right?”
Idaho gets into its offense from a high post screen for a point guard like Thacker.
“I love coming off a ball screen,” he sid. “You feel the game open up.”
He watches the big men, watches the wings.
In how they react to him, there are multiple possibilities for a shot, for an assist, and ultimately for a win.
But for Claus, his modest investment in Thacker has already paid big dividends.
“What he’s done here in 18 months,” Claus said, “has exceeded expectations.”
Wilson leaves team
Junior center Jack Wilson has left the Vandal program, the team announced Wednesday.
The 7-foot, 255-pound Wilson began his career at Oregon State before withdrawing from school in late 2018.
He sat out two semesters at Idaho due to NCAA transfer rules before taking the court for the first time with UI in December 2019.
Wilson had appeared in four games this season, averaging 1.3 points and 1.5 rebounds.
He never started a game for the Vandals.
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