And then there was one — One more conference game for Idaho to get in to a rhythm, to build a winning streak, and to actually take care of business at home.
What’s at stake for Idaho on Saturday night against Seattle at the Cowan Spectrum is very little. The conference tournament match-up is set for the Vandals, they will meet with New Mexico State Thursday at noon.
But that doesn’t mean the game is completely worthless. It’s an opportunity for Idaho to put together a two-game winning streak for the first time since January 3, when Idaho beat Seattle and San Jose State back-to-back on the road. A two-game win streak which would have Idaho feeling good heading in to Las Vegas, since it will need to win three in three days to accomplish its ultimate goal.
“I think it’s one of things, what I’ve tried to tell our guys is we’ve done the things we need to do to get better, let’s make sure we have all of our focus and all of our energy headed in to this weekend and the WAC tournament,” coach Don Verlin said. “What we’ve always felt like, our goal in our notebook is to win that next game. We’re going to do everything we can to win our next game.”
Idaho defeated Seattle back in December at the Key Arena, a 71-64 triumph which went down to the last couple of minutes. The kind of games which Idaho has struggled to win in its last 16 conference contests.
“Saturday is one of our, if not the biggest game of the year for us because it’s going to set the tone for the conference tournament,” senior guard Mike McChristian said. “I think looking back, we were able to capitalize late game when we hung around (with Seattle) and got the win on the road…Looking back and see that we were successful would give us some kind of confidence that we can execute.”
Four seniors to be honored
Four seniors will be honored by Idaho on senior night — Junior college transfers Mansa Habeeb, Mike McChristian and Wendell Faines.
And then there is Kyle Barone, Idaho’s modern era record-setting big man. Barone is the 13th player in Idaho history to top the 1,000 points mark, becoming the first Vandal since Tanoris Shepard in 2006 to join the club. Barone ranks fourth all-time with 1,387 points.
The senior is also rebounding at a ridiculous pace, averaging 9.8 boards per game but doing it with efficiency. Barone has played one game in which he hasn’t collected at least one offensive rebound – Jan. 10 in a home loss to Denver.
He’s a leading conference player of the year candidate and a shoe-in for first-team All-WAC with 16.8 points per game, 9.8 rebounds per game and a 58-percent field goal percentage.
All of this after dealing with a pre-season suspension stemming from a DUI he received in Pullman last October.
“I’d be shocked if he didn’t get conference player of the year. That just shows you what kind of person Kyle is,” Verlin said. “I challenged him to put that incident behind him and use that as motivation to be the best player you can be, whether he’s done that or not, that was something so long ago I forgot about it,”
What I’ve enjoyed coaching is Kyle Barone who came to work everyday and did what he’s supposed to do.”
Barone’s suspension was lifted in time for him to join his teammates for the final exhibition game, and has been present for every regular season game.
“I knew that wouldn’t define me as a player or a person, so I’m putting it behind me, learn from it, do the right things and get good back from it on the court,” Barone said.
Now, Barone is the only senior on the roster who has been through three consecutive first round conference tournament losses. Verlin has never won a conference tournament game at Idaho.
“So far since I’ve been here we haven’t won, but every year it seems like we could win a game or two. I truly believe last year we could have won it, we kind of got robbed at the last year,” Barone said. “I truly believe this year too we have a good enough team to win it down there, win three games in a row. We have hung with any team in our conference.”
The results against Seattle will have no bearing on that, but a win over Seattle would give Idaho it’s best string of success of the season, as Idaho would have won three of four from Division I opponents the first time all year. Success Idaho could use against a hot New Mexico State team on Thursday.
“I think there’s a large sense of urgency, going in to this conference tournament, we may not even have one after the conference tournament if we do lose so I just look at it from that aspect,” McChristian said. “It’s literally win or go home, and just to get that first win in conference tournament for coach Verlin would be big because I know his teams in the past have been deserving of the win, they just haven’t found a way to get the job done.”
Idaho’s tournament match-up is set
With New Mexico State’s upset win over La. Tech last night it clinched the No. 3 seed over UT-Arlington, meaning Idaho will play the Aggies next Thursday night at the Orleans in Las Vegas. New Mexico State isn’t in play for the No. 2 seed with Denver’s win over UT-Arlington.
Idaho was swept by New Mexico State by a combined three points, both times with Aggie guard Daniel Mullings sinking the dagger free throws at the end of the game to seal Idaho’s defeat. Both times Idaho will lament botching great stretches of play only to have poor decision making late in games cost them.
New Mexico State is the defending conference tournament champion having beaten La. Tech in last years’ final.