2008 PREVIEW: Mens and Womens Basketball

Idaho basketball starts this Friday, with BRANDON WILEY and the Vandal Men hosting Evergreen State in Moscow and the Women at Texas Tech. Both programs share the same ambitious slogan: "Restoring The Glory." No one – students, boosters, administrators or fans – are more anxious to make that slogan a reality than first year Idaho coaches Don Verlin (Men's team) and Jon Newlee (Women's team).

In the Kibbie Dome rafters are banners testifying to a rich basketball heritage at the University of Idaho, including an NCAA Sweet 16 appearance by the men in 1982 and a Women's NIT Championship in 1986, one year after the Vandal women went 28-2 and participated in the NCAA tournament.

However, things have been less than spectacular for Vandal hoops in recent years leading to two new head coaches this season: Don Verlin from perennial WAC powerhouse Utah State to lead the men, and Jon Newlee, fresh off a conference title and NCAA tournament berth at Idaho State University for the women.

The schedule posters for both programs share the same ambitious slogan: "Restoring The Glory." No one – students, boosters, administrators or fans – are more anxious to make that slogan a reality than are Verlin and Newlee, but both men realize there is some major building ahead to accomplish those goals.

The basketball season opens Friday night with the men hosting Evergreen State and the women traveling to face Texas Tech of the Big 12 Conference. Earlier this week both coaches held their first media conference calls as Vandal head coaches, and here are some of their responses to questions about the state of the Vandal basketball programs heading into the 2008-09 season.

Below is a transcript of a recent media conference with Don Verlin, followed by a media conference with Jon Newlee.

Don Verlin, Head Coach, Vandal Men:

Has a starting five been designated yet for the Michigan State game (Sunday)?
Don Verlin: "That's still a work in progress actually for Friday's game against Evergreen State. I haven't decided on who I'm going to start yet. We're kinda… figuring out which combinations work best with each other; so I really haven't decided on a starting lineup."

How about a quick overview on the team?
DV: "Basically…I've got a whole new team obviously, a new coaching staff, and that sort of thing. Most importantly our guard play is going to be the strength of our program. We return Mac Hopson who sat out last year, a transfer from Washington State, who's a pretty good, solid point guard and we're relying on him heavily to do a lot of our scoring and obviously set our tone defensively. I've been real happy with a couple of the other guards in Kashif Watson, Trevor Morris and Terrence Simmons. Not maybe as big as we would like to have, but all three of those kids are pretty athletic and play pretty hard and have all played college basketball in either junior college or Division I; so that's obviously going to be the strength of our team.

"Inside-wise we've got some guys that need some development, need some development time. Even though Luis Augusto returns from last year, his numbers weren't maybe what you'd hope for out of your center; so he's obviously a work in progress and so is Marvin Jefferson…how those two guys progress is going to really determine how good we are this year, because playing a team like Michigan State or Gonzaga, especially Michigan State and the way they rebound the ball the last number of years, you have to be strong around the glass and on the backboard. That's obviously a concern going into the Michigan State game.

"It's a team that's going to have to rely on each other. We're going to have to be balanced. We're gonna have to play hard and take care of the ball just like every other team in the country, and most importantly we're going to have to execute and get good shots and make our possessions very valuable as the season goes on and hopefully stay in some games and maybe squeak some out at the end."

How about the veteran experience on the team?
DV: "It needs to be beneficial. Again me being a new coach and this staff and those guys being new to me, I'm not sure that I've reaped any benefits from that yet. The four seniors all played here last year but did not play with me, and…our staff has come in and implemented a totally different system from what they played last year. The other upper classmen on that list are junior college transfers who we are trying to fit together. I'm hoping as the year moves on and as we get more seasoned that becomes one of our strengths, but right now we're still kind of in the feeling out stage and trying to figure out where one guy's going and moving and this and that and the other. Right now it's not a strength of ours, but I hope eventually it will be."

What do you want to see changed in the program now compared to what it was when you took over?
DV: "I think the biggest thing is we need to play with a passion, and we need to play with a purpose. We need to play with a passion defensively every night…If we do that I think the Vandal fans will come out in force and we'll get a good home court advantage going as we move into the WAC. The one thing I've preached hard to our guys this year is we've got to play hard. We can control that, and that's something that we need to control each and every night out. It starts every day in practice. Playing with a purpose…we are going to be similar to a Michigan State in that we are going to execute some pro-like sets that we're going to run. Hopefully we can run ‘em to precision. Most of the time when you run a set oriented offense it's based on timing and execution, and those are the things that I've pushed hard to our guys. Two areas that we have to be good in -- and two areas we can control as coaches and as players -- is playing hard and execution. Those are the things that we've been working really hard on these first 2-1/2, 3 weeks of practice."

After you took over there were some major roster changes. Can you talk a little bit about what you found in the program in terms of what you're looking for, things like discipline and culture and where's it at now?
DV: "The one thing I've talked to our guys a lot about is respect. I believe players and coaches ought to have mutual respect for one another, and I think if you don't have respect for your coaching staff and respect for your program, then the group is not going to be successful. That's what I've asked of each and every one of our players is that you need to respect your coaching staff and respect your university. You need to be a person that the University of Idaho is proud of. You need to be a proud member of our basketball team. That's probably the main part of the culture that I tried to instill early this first year: that we need to have respect for everybody -- everybody in this program -- and be proud to be a Vandal. That's what I've been trying to do these first two or three weeks after the summer. ..Basically some guys were not asked back or did not come back -- I think some of it was mutual, some of it wasn't -- but the thing that I ask of every player in the program is that they have respect for the coaching staff and the university."

How about Brandon Wiley?
DV: "Brandon Wiley is a junior college transfer from San Francisco City College, played in a very, very good junior college basketball program. Brandon's got a tough job on our basketball team because he can play all three of the front line positions and will be asked to do that. When we go small you may see him at the center; when we go big you may see him at the small forward. I've been really happy with Brandon's effort and his attitude and those kinds of things. He had a real nice night in our first exhibition game. I like how Brandon's coming, and he needs to continue to play hard. The hard thing for Brandon at this level is his size, but Brandon's done a good job and played very hard and like I said had a good exhibition game, had a good scrimmage, and we've been real happy with him to this point."

Do you have a feel for a rotation you'll use?
DV: "We've worked really hard on that in the exhibition game and in the scrimmage. I don't quite know yet. We will definitely go eight or nine deep because I think in the preseason you have to play all your guys so you can develop them for league and also if somebody gets hurt a guy's not just coming off the bench cold that hasn't played. I think that by looking at our roster we've got four so-called posts and then five guards, maybe six fitting into that rotation. I think we'll play eight or nine deep most every night."

Will you try to play up-tempo against Michigan State?
DV: "I don't know if we can keep up with those guys or not. No, I can't see us getting into a 100 to 95 game or something like that. They push it extremely hard. It looks like coach is using his depth and his bigs look like they can really run from the stuff I've seen on video. I'm not sure we can play that many possessions and be successful at Michigan State."

Tipoff for the Vandals against Michigan State is 3 p.m. PST Sunday. The game will be telecast on the Big Ten Network. Tuesday the Vandals will be in Spokane against Gonzaga with a 6 p.m. PST start. That game will be telecast on KHQ in Spokane as well as FSN.

Jon Newlee, Head Coach, Vandal Women:

Thoughts on where the Vandals are currently?
Jon Newlee: "Well I think we're coming along. It's been a slow process with the injuries and trying to add the soccer players (Liz Boyden and Anna Sandman) this last week. Putting new people into the mix that haven't been out since we started in September definitely slows everything up. A slow process, but I think we have been making progress; not nearly as quick as we need to with a game against Texas Tech on Friday, I know that."

Were there a couple of main things that led to the roster depletion?
JN: A couple of main things? Injuries for sure. If you're talking about way back when I got the job…a couple of kids they had signed early wanted out of their scholarship. They wanted to get a release, and my philosophy is if they don't want to be here then don't be here; so we released them. When it was all said and done when I got here there were only five people still here; so we were building off of a core group of five returners. That had a huge impact, obviously, on where we're at now as far as numbers."

Were there choices made that you were going to try to recruit for a certain quality, that you're not going to lower your standards?
JN: "We weren't just going go out and sign people to have bodies. There is a certain kind of player that I want in here. There's a certain type of person I'm looking for that can fit into our program. We just didn't take scholarships and fill them up with a bunch of bodies. We obviously could have done that. I thought maybe we could get some walk-ons which we have. It's nice getting the soccer people out to help us out for this year and add to our numbers. We're going to sign a couple of people here early…and keep looking for the kind of players that I think will great into our system."

Can you tell us a little bit about the guard from Hawaii?
JN: Shaena (Shaena-Lyn Kuehu) was a girl that we were recruiting hard down at Idaho State… Once the change was made up here she basically just came up with me and my staff who did a great job recruiting her. We're really happy with what she's done so far. I think she played well in the exhibition game. She's gotten better and better in practice every day and just comes out, really works hard. That's the kind of player and person that we're looking to get into the program in the next couple of recruiting classes."

What are your thoughts on Yinka (Olorunnife)?
JN: Yinka's going have to extend her outside range, I think, in our system. She does a good job on the glass. She's very aggressive going to the boards which is something I really like. I think defensively and rebounding she's going help us. She needs to be more consistent at finishing around the hoop as well. Right now as a team we're missing way too many layups and two-footers. Yinka is the same in the paint. She needs to start finishing better on a more consistent basis, but I like what she's done, definitely being one of the bright spots of the returners, the core people that were here when I got the job."

Do you have a starting lineup set or a core rotation set?
JN: Well, out of the six we had the other night, yeah, we only had one on the bench but I think if Alana Curtis can come back…we're not sure she's going to be able to play on Friday or not. That will squeeze things a little bit…It looks like now, if you take Alana out of the mix, we'll start (Charlotte) Otero at the point guard, Shaena, (Rachele) Kloke, Derisa Taleni and Yinka as our 5 player. At 6 feet tall (Yinka) is going have her hands full, believe me, in Lubbock Texas on Friday. I know that for a fact." (chuckles)

There were 28 three-point attempts in the exhibition – is that what you're looking for?
JN: "Well, my philosophy has always been "We're going to take the three if it's there." I like shooting the three. I think it's going to be a big part of our offense down the line. I'm not sure it needs to be that big of a part right now. We're still trying to define shooters and what's a good shot for some of these guys and what's a bad shot. Certainly there were a fair share of bad shots in the exhibition game, but a lot of our stuff is designed to get a three-point shot. At this juncture I don't think you'll see as many threes as we used to put up, my teams in the past, just because we don't have the consistency from the arc that we need and the amount of three-point shooters that we need right now to really fully implement everything we want to do offensively. It still is going to be a part of our game. Absolutely. Twenty-eight a game? I don't think so, but it will be a big part of what we do."

In terms of the culture of the program, the players' attitudes and that sort of thing. What did you find when you got there?
JN: "Well, I found that the culture needs to be changed. Definitely the mentality was not what I'm looking for coming off of championship teams and winning teams. I think there was a culture in place of "It's okay to lose. It's okay to do some things around here that lead to losing." That's something that we've been trying to change from day one, but it doesn't happen overnight, and it's a process that's ongoing with everything, and how quickly we can change that culture around is going be a big part of how quickly we can start winning basketball games. I think they go hand in hand, and like I said that's what we've been trying to do from day one -- change the culture as far as what has surrounded the women's basketball program here for the last few years."

After traveling to Texas to open the regular season, the Vandal women will next be in action Nov. 18 against Montana at 7 p.m. in Memorial Gym.

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