Golden season of Vandal basketball

MOSCOW -- In some ways, they were the forerunners of the Gonzaga phenomenon that would beguile the next generation. Their talents were subtle, their bond was tight, their coach was named Monson.

They didn't reach the same heights, or stay afloat so long, but the Idaho Vandals of the 1981-82 season were, to their fans, no less compelling. They reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Championships while achieving the only win in that tournament in school history.

Several of them have convened in Moscow this weekend for a 20-year reunion and will be honored at halftime of Idaho's game at 7:07 tonight at the Kibbie Dome against Boise State.

Of the six players who saw the majority of action for that team, Brian Kellerman, Phil Hopson, Kelvin Smith and Pete Prigge are expected to be on hand. Unable to attend are Gordie Herbert, who is living in Finland, and Kenny Owens, an assistant coach for a junior college that is playing this weekend in Oregon.

It hardly seems possible that two decades have passed since Kellerman's 18-foot jumper bounced, bounced, bounced on the rim at Beasley Coliseum in Pullman, finally dropping through at the buzzer to give Idaho a 69-67 overtime win over Iowa in the NCAAs.

That's what Kellerman himself says: "It doesn't seem like 20 years ago." Yet maybe he's gained some perspective on the team's accomplishments: the 27-3 record, the 42-game home winning streak (stretching into the next season).

Like the Gonzaga team in 1999 that reached the Elite 8 of the NCAA tournament, the Vandals of '81-82 didn't sneak up on anyone. They had seen success the previous season and, from their humble platform in the Big Sky Conference, had gained a national spotlight. They had reached No. 6 in the Associated Press rankings and finished at No. 8.

"The farther away you get, the more you appreciate it," Kellerman said. "At the time, we expected to do well. How it all worked out, in terms of rankings, you kind of scratch your head now. We got all the way to sixth or something, which is kind of unheard of."

They were less than physically imposing, their tallest starter was 6-foot-6, and discounting Herbert's career in Finland none of them made a mark in the professional ranks. But their cohesion was unsurpassed.

Prigge, the sixth man as a sophomore that year, said the starters -- all juniors and seniors -- were especially tight-knit.

"They were all real good buds and the chemistry they had, the unselfish play -- they just clicked," he said. "It didn't matter who scored. Everybody played defense and everybody rebounded. Nobody was looking to outshine anybody else."

Sounds like Gonzaga, yes? The comparison is all the more tempting in light of the coaching connection. Don Monson guided the Vandals to their early-'80s rise from long obscurity, and his son Dan Monson coached the Zags to their and 1999 moonwalk before leaving for Minnesota. His father, now retired, watched from the stands of Martin Centre and traveled with the Zags as well.

Which compels the question: Are the Monsons privy to some alchemical secret? Do they have some arcane knack for blending emotional ingredients -- not always, of course, but when personnel and conditions are ideal?

"Stuff doesn't happen by accident," Kellerman said. "By the same token, chemistry is a hard thing to coach. It kind of happens or it doesn't. We were fortunate to have it happen."

Idaho has fielded successful teams since then, most notably NCAA qualifiers in 1989 and '90, but none of them approximated the '81-82 club's combination of skill and cohesion.

Monson offers a geographical explanation. Kellerman, Smith and reserve Matt Haskins were from the Tri-Cities. Hopson and Prigge grew up in the Portland area. Herbert came from British Columbia and had attended junior college in Coeur d'Alene.

"We had kids from within the region -- not necessarily Idaho kids but kids in the vicinity," said Monson, who lives in Spokane. "They could have parents and friends and people from their community come and watch them play.

"You don't get that flavor anymore (at UI). You've got kids from all over, everywhere, and you don't get that extra tightness."

The early '80s perhaps provided the most fertile soil for Monson's strategic ideas, primarily the matchup zone defense he had employed since the 1960s, and had refined to a science while assisting Jud Heathcote at Michigan State.

"It was something people didn't confront at that time," Monson said, "and these kids picked it up and played it so well -- a kid like Kellerman with his anticipation and a kid like Kenny Owens with his tenaciousness. Herbert was also a very good anticipator. The two jumpers inside -- Kelvin and Hopson -- they could change shots, rebound well and get the break going.

"If I had gone to practice one day and said, ‘Well, we're going to scrap this matchup zone and we're just going to a man-to-man like most of these macho teams are playing,' they'd have hung me out at the flag pole by Memorial Gym. It was just that way. They believed in it so much."

A few years later, when the 3-point arc was introduced, teams were more richly rewarded for shooting over zone defenses. When colleges adopted the shot clock, it worked against coaches like Monson who stressed offensive patience and defense. Hence his 85-116 record at Oregon, after leaving Idaho in 1983.

Even in 1982, the flaw of the match-up zone was its vulnerability to putbacks. In the Vandals' NCAA tournament fling, their first-round bye and their win over Iowa were followed by a 60-42 loss to Oregon State, in which they were outrebounded 33-17.

When Kellerman thinks about that season, he can't forget games like that.

"It's always the case that the losses stand out more than the wins," he said. "It would be vice versa if the record had been reversed. If you go 3-27, you probably remember the wins."

Yet teams that go 3-27 don't get invited to 20-year reunions.

Tonight's bash was the brainchild of athletic director Mike Bohn, no doubt eager to evoke pleasant memories in a program that has gone 19-40 the past three years. He approached Monson with the idea in June and received immediate approval.

At the time, Monson didn't know his son-in-law, Steve Graff -- evidently the latest initiate in the family's alchemical arts -- would be taking his Pasco High football team into the Washington state 4A title game this weekend. Monson will miss that game in order to honor the most accomplished basketball team in UI history.

Graff's team has won a remarkable 27 straight games, and Monson knows exactly his frame of mind.

"Now it doesn't seem so much," he said. "Now you don't treasure it. You just get ready for the next game. But let me tell you, 20 years from now you're going to look back and say, ‘Wow.' "

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