Editor’s note: This is one of 12 team capsules breaking down the men’s basketball teams in the Big Sky Conference. League play opens on Thursday, December 29. For the other available capsules, click here.
Idaho made its presence known in the Big Sky Conference for the first time in a generation last season.
The Vandals, a founding member of the league in 1963, moved out of the Big Sky in 1996. Idaho returned to the Big Sky as a full member in all sports except football in 2014.
Their first year back in the Big Sky, the Vandals struggled to adjust to the league’s guard-oriented, 3-point happy style despite the presence of slick guards Connor Hill and Mike Scott. Last season however, the hard-nosed Vandals turned the corner and surged into the Big Sky Tournament.
Behind the emergence of star swingman Victor Sanders, the Vandals won nine of their final 11 regular-season games to earn the No. 3 seed in the Big Sky Tournament. UI beat reigning league champion Eastern Washington in the quarterfinals for its 21st win, capping the first 20-win campaign in Moscow since 1993.
“We always expect to be right at the top of the conference,” ninth-year head coach Don Verlin said before the season. “Last year, we were picked down in the conference. But what our guys did was believed they were conference contenders. It’s the same thing this year. It’s comforting to have 12 guys back but it doesn’t change how we go about our business.”
Idaho entered this season with high expectations thanks to the return of almost every key contributor from last season’s squad. But senior point guard Perrion Callandret, who missed nine games with an injur last season, suffered a bone bruise to his knee the second game of the season and has not returned. Verlin said on December 12 that Callandret is out indefinitely.
Sanders has continued to thrive, leading UI in scoring in nine of its 11 games. Idaho has posted a 4-1 mark at home, beating South Dakota State 96-89 in overtime, posting a 68-66 win over UC Davis and winning a pair of non-Division I games. The Vandals’ are 1-5 away from the Kibbie Dome, the lone win a 65-57 victory at Little Rock. UI has lost at Northern Illinois, Sam Houston State, Washington State, SDSU and Stanford while playing one of the most challenging non-conference schedules of any Big Sky team.
Current record — 5-6
2015-2016 record: 12-6 in Big Sky play, 21-13 overall.
Big Sky Tournament finish: The Vandals earned the No. 3 seed and a first-round bye in the first neutral site tournament held in Reno. The Vandals disposed of rival Eastern Washington, the reigning tournament champion, 77-73 in the quarterfinals. Idaho gave Montana a battle before falling 81-72 in the semifinals.
The Vandals lost 68-63 at Seattle U in the first round of the College Basketball Invitational to end the first 20-win season since 1993.
Head Coach: Don Verlin, ninth year at Idaho. The Stew Morrill disciple — Verlin served on Morrill’s staff at Colorado State from 1994-1998 and at Utah State from 1998 until 2008 — has led the Vandals to 136 wins over the last eight and a half seasons. His Vandals advanced to the quarterfinals of the 2009 of the CollegeInsider.com Tournament. UI went to the CIT in 2011 and 2012.
Since Idaho rejoined the Big Sky in 2014, Verlin has led the team to a 20-16 league record and a 39-36 mark overall.
Verlin on upcoming conference campaign: “The one thing you are going to see from our team is relentless effort. Our work ethic from the end of the season until now has been better than it’s ever been. We have a lot of really quality people in our locker room and we have a lot of guys who stand for the right stuff. They understand how hard they have to work to accomplish their goals. Hopefully in March, we can be going to the NCAA tournament.”
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Victor Sanders — The 6-foot-5 swingman had an average freshman season, scoring 3.8 points per game and reaching double figures just once before breaking out as a sophomore. One of the best lockdown perimeter defenders in the league saw his offensive game evolve into one of the best in all the Big Sky.
Sanders scored in double figures in 24 of the 27 games he played in — he missed seven games with a wrist injury suffered after he slipped on the ice during Idaho’s road swing through Montana — and surpassed 20 points seven times. He earned second-team All-Big Sky honors and All-Tournament honors thanks to averaging 15.9 points per game, including 17.9 in league play. He shot 41.6 percent from beyond the 3-point arc and made 117 of his 138 free throw attempts (84.8 percent) while chipping in 1.2 steals per game.
Nate Sherwood — Sherwood started Idaho’s last 18 games as a redshirt freshman and came of age in the Big Sky Tournament. The 6-8, 220-pounder converted his first eight field goal attempts and scored a career-high 19 points in Idaho’s win over Eastern Washington to earn a berth in the semifinals.
This season, Sherwood is averaging 6.1 points on 45.1 percent shooting and 3.6 rebounds per game, all numbers that are slightly down from a year ago. He averaged 6.5 points on 49.5 percent shooting and 3.8 rebounds per game last season.
Jordan Scott — The 6-6 junior started three games and averaged 3.0 points per game last season. Now he is in his first season as a full-time starter and still trying to carve out his role.
He is playing 21.4 minutes and averaging 4.5 points per game. He is shooting 40.4 percent from the floor and has hit just one of his nine tries from beyond the arc. His 5.3 rebounds per game are second on the team.
Arkadiy Mkrtychyan — The 6-7, 235-pounder from Portland started five games as a true freshman, scoring 8.8 points and grabbing 4.8 rebounds per game two seasons ago. Last season, he started 22 games and scored 7.3 points per outing.
His role has diminished with the emergence of junior college transfer Brayon Blake. Mkrtychyan is no longer starting and is playing just 15.4 minutes per game. He is averaging 4.8 points on 44.7 percent shooting and is grabbing 3.1 rebounds per outing.
Ty Egbert — The 6-9, 225-pound senior earned a scholarship in the off-season after averaging 6.6 points and 3.9 rebounds per game last season. This season, he is shooting 59 percent from the floor but he has seen his minutes dip significantly to 11.5 per game. He is scoring 5.1 points and grabbing 2.2 rebounds per game.
Perrion Callandret — Callandret was one of the league’s best point guard when healthy last season, averaging 14 points and four rebounds per game in 25 outings. He played in just nine conference but scored 25 points in Idaho’s loss to Montana in the Big Sky Tournament semifinals.
Callandret hit just 5-of-21 shots and scored just 16 total points in two games before going down with a bone bruise.
“I can’t tell you when and if he will be back this season,” Verlin said. “Perrion is a guy who has been in our program for four years. He played a lot of minutes last year and he’s played in over 100 games as a Vandal.”
Chris Sarbaugh — The only contributing senior on last season’s team started all 34 games after transferring from San Diego. He averaged 5.6 points, 4.4 rebounds and let the team with 3.2 assists per game.
Brayon Blake — The 6-7, 220-pound power forward prepped at Seattle powerhouse Garfield High before spending a season each as Cochise College and North Idaho College.
Last season at NIC, Blake earned third-team NJCAA All-American honors by averaging 21.2 points and 6.6 rebounds per game as the team finished 31-2, the best in program history.
This season, Blake has not been as efficient shooting the ball — he’s shooting 43.8 percent from the field and is just 5-of-25 from beyond the arc — but he is Idaho’s second-leading scorer at 10.6 points per game. He leads the Vandals with 6.6 rebounds per game.
Travon Allen — The 6-2 true freshman led Clarkston High to back-to-back Idaho 2A state titles and is now staked with leading the Vandals. With Callandret on the shelf, the in-state product from Lapwai has started the last eight games.
Allen is playing 21 minutes per game and averaging 5.6 points, 2.1 rebounds and 1.6 assists per game. He is shooting just 32 percent from the floor and jus six of his 17 made field goals have come inside the arc. He is shooting 31.4 percent from 3 but has hit all 17 of his free throws.
Preseason polls finish: The Vandals received one of the 12 first-place votes from the league coaches and finished second in the poll. UI was picked third by the affiliated media.
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.