| March 18, 2018

Men’s Basketball Preview: (Big) Sky is the limit

Idaho’s shot at redemption against Idaho State went out the window when Southen Utah took down the Bengals Tuesday.

“I would love to see Idaho State win so we can get our revenge,” senior forward Brayon Blake said before the first round conference tournament tip Tuesday night between the Bengals and Southern Utah.

ISU was the only Big Sky team that had beaten the Vandals once and didn’t at least give them another shot — it lost to Southern Utah, escaping without a rematch.

The Vandals, instead of their in-state rivals, will be tasked Thursday night with an SUU team bound and determined to exact its own vengeance, a team which is undoubtedly eager to get a third and final stab at Idaho.

For the second consecutive game, the Vandals face a Thunderbird team which, on paper, appears a low-grade, scrap-squad of sorts – They have won only six conference games (counting Tuesday), finished with just 11 wins on the regular season and are statistically fruitless.

For avid Vandal onlookers, though, this is not at all an accurate representation of the SUU team that had been presented before them Jan. 18 and March 3.

The team Idaho fans witnessed was not one plagued by inconsistencies, without any discernible stars, in contention for the Big Sky’s worst — it was an all-around solid team, fueled by late-season fire, smart post-play and a collaborative scoring effort.

The Vandals recognize SUU’s skill, but as of now, they own the poise.

“Coming into this tournament, we are very confident,” Blake said. “We don’t think any team is better than us as a whole in this conference.”

Idaho has won nine of its last 10 games, and although five of those wins were by no more than nine points, the Vandals march into Reno, Nevada riding a streak matched by no other conference squad.

They also feature two all-Big Sky selections in Blake, a first teamer, and senior guard Victor Sanders, a second teamer. Only Montana also put forth two first or second-team players. Guards Ahmaad Rorie and Michael Oguine were named first and second teamers, respectively.

Speaking of all-conference talent, Blake has displayed his at near-full capacity down the way-late stretch. Over the last five games, he’s averaging just over 20 points and 10 boards-per-game.

Take a step back.

Over the last 10 games, he’s racked up 21 points-per-contest, exactly 10 rebounds-per-game, and is shooting 52 percent from the field.

If Blake would have logged those numbers throughout the season, he could easily have been named the Big Sky’s MVP, instead of Eastern Washington guard Bogdan Bliznyuk.

What about Sanders? In the last five games, the three time all-conference selection is banging in 18 points on average, a tad lower than his 19 points-per-game on the season, but he’s also shooting over 51 percent from the field.

One could make an argument that it’s been like this all season – it really hasn’t. Sure, both have been key factors since November, but the duo’s scoring wasn’t quite as symbiotic back then. Now, it’s almost expected that both will, at worst, knock in somewhere around 15 points-per-game.

They were the difference in Idaho’s nail-biting senior night win over SUU last Thursday. The Thunderbirds waltzed in, packed a punch, forced the Vandals and their fans to stutter, but ultimately fell.

Guard Brandon Better came off the bench, banged in six 3’s and finished with 21 points. Guard James McGee, who received his fair-share of heckles all night, came alive late, cashing in all 18 of his points in the second half.

Before Blake canned a mid-range turnaround for the win, McGee shocked the Cowan Spectrum, netting a double-teamed 3-pointer with 11 seconds left.

Yes, SUU has four players who average over 12 points-per-game, and yes, the Thunderbirds were only the third conference team to match or better Idaho on the boards all season.

But what they don’t have are two all-stars, a boatload of seniors — all with four or five years of experience — a 10-year veteran coach who’s as hungry for March Madness as possible and an injured kinsman, Coach P (senior guard Perrion Callandret), who they all are playing for.

If Tuesday is any indication of what’s to come Thursday, than SUU will share the ball, look to establish forward Dwayne Morgan in the paint and attempt to limit deep-balls.

Idaho won because of Sanders’ activity beyond the arc, coupled with Blake’s versatility.

Anything beyond would signify progression to the conference semifinals.

Colton Clark can be reached at arg-sports@uidaho.edu

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