Even while battling through a conference change and a rotating roster since arriving in Moscow in 2008, head coach Don Verlin has built a program that could very well be on the brink of breaking out this season. Last year, the Vandals had their first 20-win season in more than two decades, and this season, Idaho is picked to contend for the Big Sky title.
Believe it or not, the Vandals could return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1990 — before any of the players on the Idaho roster were even born. The Vandals would have a chance to come closer to the prowess of the Idaho women's team, which has made the NCAA Tournament three out of the past four years. The Big Sky coaches poll picks Idaho's men to finish in second place behind Weber State, while the media poll has them in third.
"We're extremely excited about this basketball season. We had a great offseason and my guys have come in in fabulous shape. We have worked hard through the fall as we get ready for this season," remarked Verlin as the Vandals were in the middle of preseason workouts in late October.
The offseason he mentioned included a tour of China, where the Vandals played a collection of international teams and also made cultural and educational stops. The trip included going head-to-head with the Chinese national team, taking the game to overtime before eventually falling 102-94.
"Our guys did a great job, right from the spring season all the way into the summer, and it was highlighted by our foreign trip to China," said Verlin. "I thought it gave our team a chance to gel and become a better basketball team."
The Vandals return 12 players (including four starters), the most of any Verlin-coached team at Idaho. They did, however, lose Chris Sarbaugh, the Spokane native and Gonzaga Prep star who transferred to Idaho for his senior year and served as both a leader and a defensive fireplug.
"Now it's up to us upperclassmen to fill [Sarbaugh's] role, too, and try to show the younger guys, the guys we'll really need throughout the season, what it really takes," said senior point guard Perrion Callandret. "Hopefully we can keep up with what we're doing and make a big impact on this conference."
Victor Sanders, a fearless, shoot-the-lights-out guard who has breakout scoring ability — he dropped 33 against Northern Arizona last season — enters his junior year, after leading the Vandals in scoring last season, with an expectation that his offensive contributions will be even more prolific. Recent evidence says that Sanders is well on his way — in that loss to China, he scored 27 points, while in Idaho's 80-62 exhibition win over Carroll College, he had 17 points in just 16 minutes on the floor. ♦