With the NBA season starting this month and NCAA basketball not far behind in November, it’s time to start getting enthusiastic about upcoming hoops and the realistic possibility of an Idaho presence in March Madness, in what can be the best Idaho men’s team in years.
Idaho fans are familiar with success when it comes to the women’s basketball team. With three conference tournament championships in the last five years and three NCAA tournament appearances, it’s no secret that the women’s team has enjoyed their fair share of success.
But the men’s team hasn’t appeared in the national postseason in nearly three decades. It’s not as if there’s been a lack of talent in recent seasons however, as notables such as the three-point bomber Connor Hill, composed point guard Mike Scott and all-around shooting guard Sekou Wiggs made a positive mark on the program.
The men’s team should have made the tournament last season and the year before. In the 2015-16 season, the Vandals finished with a 21-13 season, the third best record in the Big Sky, and defeated Eastern Washington in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament. Idaho lost in the semifinals to Montana, a game which the Vandals should have won.
The next season was not quite as stellar as the last, as Idaho went 19-14, but 12-6 in conference play, the same conference record as the previous year. The Vandals again lost in the semifinals of the conference tournament, this time by a slim margin to the Fighting Hawks of North Dakota. UND eventually took down Weber State in overtime, but Idaho had just beaten the Wildcats a couple of weeks earlier in the Memorial Gym in overtime, and I was hoping the Vandals would have the chance to do it again.
The competition in the Big Sky is nowhere near substandard, as Idaho, Weber State, Eastern Washington and North Dakota have all been in close competition for the conference crown for the last few years.
Each of the four teams had been relatively star-studded from the start of 2015 until last season, but now it is Idaho that sits atop the pack, with a completely undisturbed roster.
All banes against the Vandals are now gone. Weber State’s Jeremy Senglin, a guard who at times seemed unstoppable, now suits up for the Brooklyn Nets. Jacob Wiley, the Big Sky MVP forward from Eastern Washington, is also in Brooklyn. North Dakota’s star, Quinton Hooker, is finally gone, much to the encouragement of Vandal fans. The conference preseason MVP is now suiting up in Poland’s professional league.
If anything, this should signify some preseason Big Sky favoritism for the Vandals. While the rest of the conference is busy putting together new lineups, or looking for new stars, Idaho is looking to build on what it lost— nada.
The complete starting five remain intact. Ty Egbert and Pat Ingram may be gone, two players with strong contributions off the bench, but aside from them, Idaho has lost nothing. In fact, the Vandals actually improve on the stacked roster this year, as senior guard Perrion Callandret is back from injury.
I cannot begin to explain how excited I am for Callandret to return to the backcourt, joining Victor Sanders, who we all know is impressive. The starting five last year- Sanders, the Sherwood brothers, Jordan Scott and Arkadiy Mkrtychyan, looked cohesive and performed well last season.
Imagine that, but with Callandret playing the point and Sanders at shooting-guard. Sanders will step back into his most natural position, and with Callandret taking over the assisting duties, Sanders should have even more scoring opportunities.
In my opinion, and likely the opinion of many analysts, Idaho will win the Big Sky Conference. If that happens, the Vandals should come into March Madness with a chip on their shoulder.
As a nationally undervalued group of talent, it’s likely that, even with a superb record, the Vandals will be given a tournament seed between 13 and 16. It would be undeniably beautiful if Idaho played the role of Cinderella, perhaps knocking off a high-seed. Idaho would fit the bill, just obscure enough, relatable in name recognition to schools like Florida Gulf Coast, Virginia Commonwealth or Wichita State. Maybe Vandal fans will finally get their Cinderella story this season.
Colton Clark can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @coltonclark95