Standing their ground at home. Playing some of their best basketball on the road. Making their Top 25 opponents scratch and claw to come out with wins.
These are the things the nation’s top mid-major teams do early on in the season and although it’d be far-fetched to stick that tag on Jon Newlee’s Idaho Vandals, they certainly fit all three categories.
The Vandal women’s basketball team is 3-0 at home, with wins over Carroll College, UC Irvine and most recently, Lewis-Clark State College. The home opposition hasn’t been demanding, but the road victories, and for that matter, the road losses are what certainly stand out in Idaho’s schedule thus far.
Idaho is 4-4 away on the road, a mark that includes a 2-1 showing in the Preseason WNIT Tournament. The loss was by an eight-point margin to then No. 25 Gonzaga, who slammed the Vandals by 35 points a year ago in Spokane.
But this time, on the same McCarthy Center hardwood, Idaho hung tight, led midway through the second half and made the Zags win it from the free-throw line.
Twenty-two days later it was No. 20 California, a Final Four team from a season ago, who stood opposite Idaho in the final of the John Ascuaga’s Classic in Reno, Nev. With just seven seconds remaining in the near-upset victory for Idaho, the Golden Bears missed a pair from the free-throw line. A Vandal turnover on the ensuing possession put all hopes of an upset victory to rest.
Rarely will a team spend significant time focusing on the moral victories. With an Idaho program that has teetered on the line between mediocre and above average, it’s hard to ignore them.
The Vandals have another shot at translating the moral victories into an upset victory. Idaho has games against Eastern Washington and Wyoming on tap, before closing out its non-conference slate at the home of another perennial Top 25 squad — the University of Texas.
The Longhorns don’t possess quite the same credentials as Cal and Gonzaga, but a victory in Austin would provide a massive boost heading into WAC play.
Not that the 7-4 Vandals are in need of that, coming off one of the best seasons in program history.
This team — one that turned around last season’s non-conference woes in a hurry — is as advertised, and it’s only a matter of time before Newlee and company board a flight mid-March for an NCAA tournament destination to be announced.
The Vandals can only hope that the destination isn’t Storrs, Conn., and the opponent isn’t UConn.
Theo Lawson can be reached at email@example.com