To paraphrase Don Verlin’s season-long message to his University of Idaho team: “You can be great, if you realize you’re not that good.”
Which is to say the Vandals, at 22-8, are positioned to establish a legacy as one of UI’s memorable basketball teams if they win the Big Sky Conference Tournament in Reno, Nevada, to earn the automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament.
But they have had a distressing tendency to lose focus at inopportune times, especially against teams they would be expected to beat.
This is no time to change the message. As the conference second seed, the Vandals on Thursday will play the winner of Tuesday’s first-round game between Idaho State and Southern Utah. Both those teams made it harrowing for Idaho this year. The Bengals (14-15, 9-9) tripped the Vandals 86-83 in Pocatello in their lone meeting.
Southern Utah’s record is only 11-18, 5-13 in league. However, the Vandals barely survived the Thunderbirds in the regular season finale in Moscow, 78-76, on Brayon Blake’s jump shot with one second on the clock. The Vandals also narrowly defeated Southern Utah, 80-76, in January in Cedar City.
“They’re very similar,” Verlin said. “Idaho State shot 16 threes against us.” Brandon Boyd, honored as the Big Sky’s top reserve, scored 32 points against the Vandals; Balint Mocsan added 18, Jared Stutzman 17.
That resembles the Thunderbirds, who peppered Idaho with 11 threes. Both the Bengals and Thunderbirds have enough of a low post game to concern Vandal defenders. At 7 feet, ISU’s Novak Topalovic is a matchup problem for almost anybody. Southern Utah features three 6-8 players in Chriatian Musoko, Dwayne Morgan and Jacob Calloway. The Vandals, by contrast, generally go inside with the 6-7 Blake, 6-8 Nate Sherwood and 6-7 Arkadiy Mkrtychyan, though Mkrtychyan seems particularly enthusiastic about taking on the challenges of winning in the lane. Idaho often gives help inside, but sometimes it comes at the expense of hustling to the arc to challenge 3-point shooters.
“Not good enough,” Verlin said flatly of the Vandals’ perimeter defense.
The close call against the Thunderbirds in Moscow prevented Verlin from going to the bench to give freshmen like 6-2 Geno West and 6-9 Scott Blakney meaningful minutes in the Vandals’ final tuneup before the tournament. West has played in 10 games for a total of 44 minutes, Blakney has played a total of 90 minutes in 16 games.
Any additional seasoning they might have received against the Thunderbirds would have been helpful, since they’re almost certain to be called upon in Reno. The Vandals suffered a big loss when senior guard Perrion Callandret broke his kneecap against ISU and was lost for the rest of the season. Before getting hurt, Callandret averaged 9.6 points and 3.4 rebounds a game as both a starter and sixth man. He was also a determined, long-armed defender who made 23 steals.
His absence shortens Idaho’s regular rotation from eight players to seven. Eight is enough, but not seven, according to Verlin.
“We’re going to need the freshmen to play a little bit. Seven is not enough to go with in three games in three days.”
Idaho comes to Reno with two of the league’s more outstanding players. Blake is a first-team all-conference selection, averaging 9.5 rebounds and 16.6 points per game. Victor Sanders, second-team all-Big Sky, became the Vandals’ second-leading career scorer this season. He is averaging 19 points per game, and of late appears to have figured out how to deal with all the added defensive attention he draws, lighting up Southern Utah with 28 points.
The Vandals have a good track record of winning close games this year; seven of their victories have come by four points or fewer. That’s comforting heading into the Big Sky Tournament, where Idaho is likely to be tested again – maybe even in the first game.