The Idaho men’s basketball team got back to .500 on Saturday night after a 65-49 win over Big Sky opponent Northern Arizona.
It may not seem an impressive win, considering NAU was a 4-15 squad before the game, but a win’s a win — and with every conference victory the Vandals grow closer to punching a ticket to Reno for the Big Sky tournament.
Last year, Idaho ended the regular season with a 20-11 record. As a 3-seed in the conference tournament, the Vandals looked like they could be the first Idaho team since 1990 to make the NCAA tournament, better known as March Madness.
The 1990 team, coached by Kermit Davis, had a 25-6 overall record and were still a 13-seed in the tournament. A first round loss to Louisville would boot the Vandals out, despite the great record and heavy optimism from fans.
After 35 years, Idaho is still looking to win the Big Sky tournament and earn a spot in the NCAA tournament. A 9-9 record may not look overly impressive, but by the way the Vandals have played in the last three games, a March Madness bid is not totally out of the question.
Idaho currently sits fifth place in the Big Sky, tied with Portland State with a 4-3 conference record. The teams above Idaho are Weber State (10-7, 5-1), North Dakota (11-7, 6-2), Eastern Washington (13-7, 5-2) and Montana (10-11, 5-3).
The Big Sky Conference is nowhere near stellar this season. If Idaho can improve their current three-game winning streak to six, it is possible that the Vandals will move into second or first in the conference by early February.
What I witnessed Saturday night in the Cowan Spectrum demonstrated the Vandals’ balance and composure, shooting 40 percent from the field and out-assisting NAU 14-8
It looks like Idaho has settled down at this point in the season and figured out a winning lineup. The loss of guard Perrion Callandret early in the season caused the Vandals to have a shaky start, going 4-5 in the first nine games.
The Vandals are not getting blown out in any games. A six-point loss to Stanford, an NCAA tournament team last season, and a seven-point loss to Eastern Washington could have very easily been wins for Idaho.
Perhaps the breakout of junior forward Brayon Blake and consistency of backup point guard Trevon Allen will lift the Vandals to a winning record in their last 11 games.
Taking some heat off of Victor Sanders by having other guards bring the ball up the court is working. The ability of the star guard to serpentine the court and create openings has led to an average of 24 points in the last three games for Sanders.
Sanders is a scorer. He reminds me of a young Reggie Jackson, using his length and ability to cut through the opposition and create open looks. A point guard’s primary responsibility is to create looks for the scorers on the floor. If Allen gets more playing time at point guard, Sanders will have the opportunity to put up bigger numbers.
The Vandals should be putting up more 3-pointers. The 36 percent shooting from beyond the arc against NAU could have easily been over 50 percent. Idaho has been adept this season at getting good looks from deep and four of the five starters all can hit if given enough space.
If the last three games are any indication of what is to come later in the season, expect Sanders to continue to average 20 points and Allen to continue to play more than 20 minutes.
A healthy Callandret would definitely help the Vandals, but because he is out indefinitely, Idaho must rely on a young roster to fill the gap, a strategy that seems to be working.
I expect the Vandals to catch heat in the last 11 games and finish with a winning record, a feat not common in Idaho basketball. The current roster has the ability to win the Big Sky tournament, and if the team plays like it against NAU, expect some drama in Reno.
Colton Clark can be reached at email@example.com