Idaho never truly recovered from its disappointment in Las Vegas last year. Going in as the No. 3 seed in the 2012 Western Athletic Conference Tournament, the Vandals were buzzing. They’d beaten the top two teams in the conference at least once, both on the road, en route to their third-place finish in the WAC.
That didn’t seem to matter in the grand scheme of things — No. 6 seeded Hawaii upended Idaho in a game that went down to the wire. Another one-and-done in the conference tournament, and sluggish momentum that Idaho unfortunately pulled into this latest season.
Predicted to finish fourth or fifth in pre-season polls, Idaho stumbled to a 7-11 finish in conference play in 2013, grabbing the No. 6 seed at the conference tournament and once again bowing out in the first round — the fifth consecutive time under Idaho coach Don Verlin.
The Vandals were not invited to post-season play with their 12-18 record, needless to say.
All the more disappointing is how Idaho couldn’t capitalize on having the conference player of the year. Kyle Barone averaged 17.2 points and 9.7 rebounds per game, all while shooting 57 percent from the field.
But Idaho couldn’t find Barone help in the backcourt.
Only three times all season Idaho put back-to-back wins together, and the Vandals could never amass three wins in a row.
It was a season that somewhat defied the momentum from Verlin’s previous four regular seasons on campus. Even including this disappointing season, Verlin’s last five have been exceptionally better than the 15 years which preceded it.
Verlin has brought the Vandals to three CollegeInsider.com Tournaments, but has never sniffed the NIT or NCAA Tournament.
That’s not to say next year won’t provide an opportunity with it.
Idaho loses who might be its best player in the last 20 years in Barone, which alone might lead some to give up on this team before it even plays its first game next year. But talent is returning. It will be on Stephen Madison, who averaged 14.1 points-per-game as a junior, to take the load as the senior leader and all around scoring forward.
Helping him will be Connor Hill. The to-be junior is a 3-point specialist who scored 12.1 points-per-game and could be more comfortable in a spot-up shooting role depending on the contributions from certain freshmen next season.
The incoming players, all of whom could and should play right away, will be the biggest question marks and reason for hope.
Ayodele Ojo from State Fair Community College in Missouri will come in right away and provide depth in the frontcourt. He only stands 6-foot-7 but comes as an accomplished rebounder.
The biggest impact, however, will come in the backcourt where Idaho struggled in 2012-13. Idaho has landed commitments from two Seattle area guards — Perrion Callandret of Bothell, Wash., and Sekou Wiggs of Seattle.
Those two provide length and athleticism in the backcourt, both of which Idaho lacked badly. Standing at 6-foot-2 Callandret is known for his wild athleticism and ability to dunk the ball. Wiggs stands at 6-foot-3 and is known for his quickness and shooting ability. Both are likely to get playing time right away with Idaho losing starting combo-guard Mike McChristian.
Idaho struggled with both preventing and creating turnovers in 2012-13, and having athleticism in the backcourt can at least start to alleviate those struggles.
The Vandals will take a lot of unfamiliar road trips in 2013-14. Idaho’s conference home has gone through a complete re-construction, adding seven new members to replace the eight that have departed. Idaho finished 2012-13 with a higher RPI than six of the new members joining the conference. Grand Canyon University, the seventh new member, will be transitioning from Division II.
Therefore, Idaho should really have no excuse to not finish below No. 2 in the conference.
The even bigger expectation? Winning a game in the conference tournament. It’s shaping up to look like Idaho could have its easiest road to the WAC championship game in its history in the WAC.
It’s unlikely Idaho could gain an NIT bid considering the conference RPI will be among the worst in the NCAA, but that just makes the unlikeliness of an NCAA bid at least more likely.
What a parting gift that would be before making the transition to the Big Sky.
Sean Kramer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org