|Vandals peaking at tourney time|
MOSCOW, Idaho – If the goal is to be playing your best basketball at the end of the season, the Idaho men’s basketball team must feel pretty good as it heads to Las Vegas, Nev., for this week’s Western Athletic Conference tournament, where the fifth-seeded Vandals will take on fourth-seeded Kansas City at 2:30 p.m. on Mar. 13 in the quarterfinals.
The Vandals have won four of their last five games and peaked offensively during the last month of the season. Stating with its Feb. 15 game at Utah Valley, Idaho is averaging 13 more points, four more assists and shooting nine percent better from the field and 10 percent better from 3-point range that it did in its first 25 games of the season. The Vandals are coming off back-to-back WAC road wins at Chicago State and Kansas City, and enter the tournament with a 14-17 overall record and a 7-9 mark in WAC play.
“What you hope at this point is your guys are locked-in and they have been extremely locked-in the last three or four weeks,” Idaho coach Don Verlin said. “Then you’ve got to rely on your enthusiasm and your leadership to take care of some of those nerves, and that’s what I’m going to impress on our seniors this week.”
The Vandals will be playing Kansas City for the second game in a row, after beating the ‘Roos 87-80 in Kansas City in the regular season finale. Idaho and UMKC split the regular season series as the ‘Roos took an 80-74 win in Moscow in both teams’ WAC-opener on Jan. 2.
“We just beat them, and that’s always a positive,” Verlin said. “We just beat them on their home court and there’s no reason we shouldn’t be ready to go. Both games with them were very close, they’re a very explosive scoring team.”
While Idaho’s offense has been lethal of late, it’s the other end of the court Verlin said will be crucial to making a tournament run.
“Defense and rebounding, no question about it,” Verlin said of his keys to the tournament. “You can’t go to the conference tournament and allow people to shoot 50 percent on you. We’ve got to get that two-point field goal percentage down to about 40 percent and three-point field goal percentage down under 30 percent. If you’re able to do that and finish possessions by rebounding the basketball, you’ve got a chance to win the tournament.”
The Vandals are led by first-team all-WAC senior Stephen Madison, the WAC’s leading scorer during the regular season with 19.9 points per game. Madison also leads the team in rebounding with 7.6 boards per game and assists with 2.45 per game. Junior Connor Hill adds 14.8 points per game for the Vandals and has buried 95 3-pointers this season, just four shy of Idaho’s single-season program record. The Post Falls, Idaho, native is already Idaho’s career 3-pointers made leader, and is just seven points away from becoming the 15th 1,000-point scorer in program history.
While Hill and Madison are Idaho’s most prolific scoring threats, Verlin said he needs an all-around effort in order to have a successful tournament. Point guards Mike Scott and Glen Dean are among those Verlin will rely on. Scott led the WAC in assist-to-turnover ratio during conference play at 2.0, and Dean is one of Idaho’s best defenders and one of the best free-throw shooters in the league.
“Everybody has to be good at the conference tournament, no question about it,” Verlin said. “You never know who is going to step up, you never know who is going to be in foul trouble, you never know what’s going to happen. Usually the team that wins the conference tournament has a number of guys play very well night-in and night-out. Obviously for us, Stephen, Connor, Glen and Mike all have to play very well. But what we have to make sure we do as a unit is defend it better. We’re not defending well enough and we’ve got to go into the conference tournament with the mindset that we’re going to shut some people down.”
The winner of Idaho and Kansas City will advance to the semifinals to face the winner of No. 1 Utah Valley and No. 8 Texas-Pan American at 6 p.m. on Mar. 14. The WAC championship game is Mar. 15 at 7 p.m. on ESPNU.
Two No. 5 seeds have won the WAC tournament, with UNLV (1998) and Hawai`i (2001) accomplishing the feat. In the 30-year history of the tournament, only 12 top seeds have been tournament champions, and only one in the five years the tournament has been played at a neutral site.
Thursday’s game will be broadcast on the Vandal Radio Network, and live stats and a live web stream will be available at www.WACSports.com.