Back at the beginning of the 2010-11 basketball season, the UI Athletic Media Relations office compiled a statistic showing that this year's edition of the Idaho Vandals men's team was one of the least experienced teams in NCAA Division I basketball. When you combined the total NCAA Division I experience of the 13 members on the team at that time (one year on the team as a letter winner or squad member equals one year of experience) the Vandals came up with a total of something like six years.
Vandal coach Don Verlin didn't dwell on his team's lack of experience and instead focused on how good they were preparing for an upcoming game, how well they were able to make changes in the middle of a game to adapt to situations.
The Vandals (13-10, 6-5 WAC) were tested over the past few weeks. It started innocently enough with a three-point home loss to BSU where the final outcome might or might not have revolved around a controversial call late in the second half. The call was not reviewable, and Idaho lost. The Vandals then hit the road on the tough "eastern" circuit to Louisiana and New Mexico and lost twice.
Thursday the Vandals hosted San Jose State. They had a seemingly safe lead late in the game, but the Spartans took advantage of a replay review on a new point of emphasis to erase a late deficit and took the game into overtime. Ironically this all happened 53 weeks after the Vandals last year saw a game against BSU go into overtime on a last second shot at the same end of the floor in the Cowan Spectrum.
The subsequent overtime periods were telling. Last year the Vandals gave up the last second bucket to BSU and wilted, being outscore 13-1 early in the extra period and wound up losing by 10. Thursday against the Spartans the less experienced 2011 version of the Vandals fought through two overtimes with chances to win in each period. Late in the second overtime period, with the Spartans up by one, Idaho missed a shot. San Jose rebounded and the Vandals tried everything to foul but did not get a call. The Spartans got the pass out and dunked, Idaho missed a half court shot at the buzzer, and the losing streak reached four games.
After Thursday's loss, Saturday was a critical game for Idaho. They were sinking in the standings with a very difficult portion of the schedule coming up. Hawaii (13-10, 4-7 WAC) came in having won four of its last five games, including a win Thursday at BSU and a double overtime loss to nationally ranked Utah State. What was the mindset on the team before Saturday's game?
A typical response came from guard Deremy Geiger. One of the top scorers on the team averaging double digits throughout the season, Geiger was shut out against San Jose Thursday and made only three free throws against Hawaii. Was he concerned about his lack of scoring before the game Saturday? "Nah, I wasn't," he said. Instead, the unselfish junior wanted to help his teammates. "My goal was to get 10 (assists) and I ended up getting eleven. I'm happy with it. Only two turnovers, too."
If you've been around this year's version of the Vandals, you know they’re not making this up. They genuinely want to do everything possible to win every game. Everyone wants to contribute.
Hawaii posted a big lead to start the game thanks in part to a 1-3-1 defense that the Vandals had seen them use at BSU but still had not faced in a game this season. Hawai'i led 17-10 when true freshman Stephen Madison checked in for Idaho after the first media time out. With 10:37 left in the first half Geiger fed Madison on the perimeter for a nothing-but-net three to make cut the lead to four. Hawaii failed to score and the ball came back to the Vandal goal. This time it was Brandon Wiley with the pass out to Madison who canned another three at the 9:39 mark as the small-but-vocal crowd erupted. Just 40 seconds later Madison set himself up with a steal. The ball came back down the court and Geiger notched another assist as Madison drained yet another trey giving him three in a two minute span to give the Vandals the lead.
From there the flood gates opened. Geiger passed to Wiley for a two-pointer. Geiger then passed off to Landon Tatum for another deuce. At the 7:05 mark Tatum canned another unassisted two. The final tally was 15 unanswered points in a little over three minutes and an eight-point Vandal lead. By that point Hawaii had used four of its allotted five game timeouts and the Vandals were feeling the momentum.
Verlin summarized what had happened. "I thought it took us a while to get settled in, and once we got settled in and we started moving it we got some open shots -- then we started knocking 'em down," he said. "When Stephen (Madison) came in and knocked down three, that was probably the difference in the game. I thought he changed the momentum of the entire game knocking those shots down. Then it kinda became contagious. Deremy Geiger played a very good first half -- nine assists in the first half. Once we got going he was able to penetrate those gaps and find the open guy, and I thought that was a huge part of our first half surge."
What did he do in practice Friday or Saturday's shoot-around to bring about the change? "I don't know if I did anything any different than we normally do," Verlin said. "It was nice to make some shots. We just made a bunch of shots tonight, especially from three. When you shoot 10-for-18 you're pretty hard to beat, and I thought our guys responded and did a great job.
"There was no one more disappointed than our basketball team at losing an eight point lead with 1:15 to go [against SJSU], and what they did tonight is just a testament to their character. These guys, they battle, and I've told you guys all along I like this team. The reason why I like 'em is because we've got a bunch of good characters in that room."
Geiger added, "I think before a game we usually always have to come in with the same mindset. Whenever we do that, we're gonna attack and be aggressive an be on it, the scoreboard usually takes care of itself and we usually end up winning the game. The problem with us is sometimes we come out a little flat, and we gotta try to play uphill. We've just got to avoid those starts."
Alluding to his 11 assists, Geiger said he was "just trying to take on a different role, trying to do different things to get my teammates involved. That was my main focus from the beginning of the game, to really get them going, because whenever the team plays well, we always win."
What prompted that attitude? "Some of it has been my shooting. I've been off; so I can do other things to help the team," Geiger said. "It wasn’t too hard. Get one and they start coming. I've got great teammates that can shoot the ball. They create; so just give 'em the ball where they like it and let 'em do what they can do. That was my main goal, to focus coming into this game. My shot's not falling, don't let that affect my game. Just get my other players involved and do the little things."
Verlin was asked if the team's lack of experience was a factor in the four-game losing streak. "No, because we don't let it be that way. We had a new year and they're all a year older; so you can't allow it -- your inexperience. You can't allow it to be an excuse for you," Verln said. "This team is really good at game prep and picking stuff up. Now we do some things on the court, we'll show our inexperience at times handling the ball and a few of those things, but you can't allow that to be a negative thing.
"This group is really mature beyond its years of experience, believe it or not, in the way that they prep for games," he continued. "They're as good as I've been around. We are able to make a lot of adjustments during the games with them, something I haven't been able to do my first two years here with our team; so that’s a tribute to those guys listening in the film room. They're good kids. There is a lot of character in that room. They've hung together. Like I said, we've gotten better everyday, and that's what teams have to do, and we just continued to get better and better and better, and we've got to do that in February."
Ledbetter added, "We haven't played against a spread out zone like that; so we practiced it the last couple of days, but there's nothing like the game and the length that they give. We were able to drive it and shoot 'em out of it pretty quickly once we found our groove.
"It (the win) was huge," he continued. "We haven't had this feeling in a while, but it's big. We needed some momentum going into that game and remind us what it felt like to win. It's been a while. We kept our heads up. We kept a positive attitude; so we knew we were gonna end it tonight."
Did Geiger feel the Vandals gained anything from the loss Thursday? "I think we just tried to stay on it the whole game (against Hawaii), not let 'em back in the game, not loosen up; just stay on it the whole game because at the end of the San Jose State game we let up on a couple of possessions and let 'em get back in the game. We really wanted to stay on top of that tonight.
"With Stephen Madison, Jeff (Ledbetter), those are guys who are just great shooters. When I think of them I just try to think where would I like the ball? Where would I like it as a shooter? We got in a good rhythm and we were just connecting a lot tonight," Geiger added.
There were some nuances that might have been overlooked. The Vandals at the start of the second half sank 12 consecutive free throws. Defensively Idaho allowed only three points from the nine minute mark of the second half until about one minute to go when Verlin sent in Joe Kammerer, Sheridan Shayne and Paul Jorg to finish the game. "I think we just picked up our intensity," Ledbetter said. "That's the thing, second half intensity and stuff. We've been alright in the first half, but in the second half we needed to pick it up. Tonight we were able to really buckle down and get 'em."
Asked if there was any point in the second half when the Vandals thought they had the game on ice, Ledbetter said, "We were confident, but when we were up 15 we really tried to step on it and shut 'em out. They're a tough team and they were able to hang around for a little bit. They're a good team; so this was a big win."
How about the 12 straight free throws in the second half? "That's huge for us," said Ledbetter. "We struggled with that in our little losing streak. That's big for us. We've really been practicing them lately, just guys getting their confidence back in their free throws. It's all routine. That helps a lot. You don't really notice it, but that's a big boost for us when we can knock down those freebies like that."
At the end of the media conference, Verlin was asked about the upcoming week against Utah State and BSU, the challenges those games present, and if the win over Hawaii helped boost the Vandals' confidence level. "It obviously boosts our confidence with the big, big games coming up. A huge week coming up for us," he said. "It doesn't get any bigger than this week when you have a Top-20 team coming in, and then you've got to go to your rival who nipped you at the buzzer. It gives us a lot of confidence.
"We needed this win," coach continued. "No question about it. We needed the San Jose game too, but that's over and done with. It's a huge win for us. I thought our guys played very well. I thought they responded to it. We've got to do everything we can to go out and play the very best we can versus Utah State. They're the only team in the league we haven't beaten. There's nobody who wants to beat them more than me. It's a huge night. It's our 'Belief' night. We're celebrating Coaches versus Cancer. Coach Morrill and I will have all of our players in 'Believe' shirts. Our staff will be in that. It's a tribute to raise money for cancer, and we will be ready to go. I guarantee it. I can't guarantee a win, but I will guarantee we'll be ready.
Tipoff Wednesday against Utah State is 8:05 p.m. in the Cowan Spectrum, and the game will be nationally televised on ESPN2. Then, next Saturday it will be another doubleheader, this time in Boise with the women taking on the Broncos at 5 p.m., followed by the men at 8pm.