Courtesy: Dean Hare
Vandals keep climbing
Courtesy: Idaho Athletic Media Relations
          Release: 03/29/2012
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2011-12 Idaho Men's Basketball Season Wrap-Up

University of Idaho head coach Don Verlin said the Vandals saw themselves at a crossroads at the midway point of the season.

Idaho was 7-7, and had just followed up an impressive three-game road winning streak, including a 74-60 victory at Oregon State, with three-consecutive losses by three points or fewer – one of which came on a buzzer-beater in overtime.

It didn’t help that the Vandals started off Western Athletic Conference play with a 73-55 home loss to eventual champion Nevada. Verlin told the team it needed to improve its rebounding and defensive focus, and that exactly what the Vandals did.

After the Nevada loss, the Vandal men responded with a strong defensive effort in a 63-59 victory that was clinched by junior Mansa Habeeb forcing a traveling violation on the Bulldogs’ final offensive possession. Idaho went on to win four of its next five games, including its first victory at Louisiana Tech.

The Vandals held 12 of their final regular-season 15 opponents below 70 points and 12 of 15 below their respective season scoring averages and maintained one of the conference’s top rebounding defense averages and rebounding margins over the remainder of the season.

While the Wolf Pack got the first laugh, the Vandal men got revenge a few weeks later. Idaho ended Nevada’s quest for a school-record 17th-consecutive victory on Feb. 4 with a 72-68 win – the second in a row for Idaho at Lawlor Events Center.

That victory sparked another Vandal run, as the team won its next four games and seven of its final eight in the regular season to finish the year at 18-12 overall and 9-5 in WAC play for the team’s third top-three conference finish under Verlin.

“They played with their hearts all year long,” Verlin said of his team. “There were numerous times where we could have cashed it in. This team did a number of unbelievable things, and things that you have to be proud of.”

After a last-second shot put the Vandals out in the quarterfinal round of the WAC Tournament, the Vandals got good news for the third time in the last four seasons with an invite to the Postseason Tournament.

Idaho hosted UC Santa Barbara – a team fresh off a Big West Tournament Championship game appearance – in the first round of the tournament. The Vandals raced out to a big early lead, then held off a furious late comeback to secure the third postseason win in program history. Idaho’s season ended in the second round of the CIT for the second time under Verlin in what many predicted would be a rebuilding year for the Vandals.

Idaho was picked fifth in the preseason WAC rankings by coaches and media alike, but the rapid improvement by senior Deremy Geiger, junior Kyle Barone and sophomore Stephen Madison, along with the timely contributions from several Vandal newcomers, propelled the Vandals beyond outside expectations.

“This team came to work every single day, and it didn’t start in the season, it started way back in the summer,” Verlin said. “We had 100 percent attendance in the summer. The guys were here lifting weights, playing and working hard. Their hard work and their dedication to Vandal basketball enabled them to put together a great season and that’s what I’m going to remember most.”

Geiger led the WAC and ranked 10th nationally in 3-point field goal percentage at 43.9 percent and tied Barone for the team lead with a 12.9 scoring average. Barone also snagged 8.0 rebounds per game, fifth-best in the WAC, and tallied the most rebounds by a Vandal (264) since Harry Harrison’s 277 boards in 1996. Madison had the top individual scoring improvement by a WAC player in 2011-12, as he increased his average from 3.7 points as a freshman to 12.1 this year on .460 shooting.

Senior team captain Landon Tatum was a steadying force at the point, as he led the team in assists for the second year in a row and moved into fifth in Idaho history with 155 dishes. Fellow senior forward Djim Bandoumel earned a spot on the WAC All-Newcomer team after a resurgent season in which he averaged 8.4 points and 5.2 rebounds on 52.5 percent shooting, along with 47 blocked shots.

Local shooter Connor Hill set Idaho freshman records with 47 made 3-pointers on 38.5 percent long-range shooting, while junior guards Mike McChristian and Habeeb came up big on several occasions. Junior forward Wendell Faines also started four games for Idaho.

Idaho’s team balance was strongly on display with the announcements of the WAC postseason awards. The conference’s coaches voted Barone to the All-WAC Second Team and Geiger the All-WAC Honorable Mention list. Tatum was a WAC All-Defensive Team selection and Bandoumel was a WAC All-Newcomer honoree.

The Vandals will miss Geiger’s shooting, Tatum’s leadership and Bandoumel’s low-post presence next year, but plenty of weapons return and the team already has an early commitment from one of the region’s top big men in Coulee Dam’s Ty Egbert.

“Our seniors were as good of three guys as I’ve ever been around,” Verlin said. “I like the foundation. We’ve got 10 guys coming back and I think we’ve recruited well. We have to make sure we continue with the work ethic that these seniors established here this year.”

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