| March 18, 2018

Column: Past champions

February 14, 2018

With a near-unanimous selection as preseason favorites to win the Big Sky Conference, it would have been reasonable to expect some panic after non-conference play. Multiple losses to CSU Bakersfield can definitely shake a fan’s confidence, but the Vandal men are sitting pretty now.

Idaho’s 9-3 record in conference play is good enough for third in the conference and in the hunt for a first-round bye in the conference tournament. With that rosy outlook, the Vandals have a fair chance at sneaking into the NCAA Tournament.

But what is Idaho’s history in the Big Dance?

The Vandals have made four trips to the tournament. They made the 1981 and 1982 tournaments under head coach Don Monson after winning the Big Sky in both years. The team lost in the first round in overtime in 1981, but the team secured a 3 seed in 1982. Thanks to some fortunate timing, the Vandals played with a home court advantage in Pullman and beat Iowa. They then fell to Oregon State in the Sweet Sixteen, ending the program’s longest run in the postseason.

Monson left the program after the 1982-1983 season for Oregon, but he left a lasting impact in the area. The Vandals sustained a momentous home-court advantage, winning 43 consecutive games between 1980 and 1983. They often outdrew the football team in attendance, often topping 10,000 attendees.

The program went through some turmoil after Monson left, finishing last in the Big Sky for three straight years. The Vandals returned to prominence when Kermit Davis took over, winning the Big Sky in the 1988-89 and 1989-1990 seasons.

Unfortunately, Idaho did not make it out of the first round of the NCAA Tournament in either season. They were lucky enough to play in Boise for the first round in their 1989 appearance, but they drew an unfortunate matchup with UNLV and legendary coach Jerry Tarkanian. The Runnin’ Rebels went on to win it all the next year.

Idaho also made the National Invitation Tournament once under Monson, and current Head Coach Don Verlin has made the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament three different times. The Vandals participated in the College Basketball Invitational in each of the last two years as well.

Under Verlin, Idaho has never finished better than third in the conference. If the Vandals are able to keep up their current pace, they will finish in third with a first round bye in the conference tournament. They could vault over Weber State and Montana if they win their upcoming matchups with each and they both suffer some losses. Regardless of whether or not all those hypotheticals come to fruition, Idaho has a pretty good chance at winning the tournament and securing the conference’s bid to the NCAA Tournament.

We’ve written plenty about this team’s prospects if they were to make the tournament. There is more than enough senior leadership to sustain this team through a run in the conference tournament and into the real thing. The recent switch to bring senior guard Perrion Callandret off the bench has revitalized him and brought some new energy to this group at a crucial point in the season.

The team’s upcoming home stand will go a long way towards deciding if this team can join the others as a conference champion and NCAA Tournament participant. Montana State took the Vandals to overtime in both of their meetings last year, and Montana has won 13 games in a row. Victories against both will be a tall task to say the least. But if Idaho can maintain their consistent performances of late, the team could join the ranks of conference champions from long ago.

Jonah Baker can be reached at arg-sports@uidaho.edu or on Twitter @jonahpbaker

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