2008-09 Men's Season Summary, PART I

Idaho's stunning basketball season ended Monday with a second round CIT loss at Pacific. As disappointing as that loss was, it couldn't possibly over-shadow what this year's Vandal basketball team accomplished: The best season since 98-99; The emergence of a star in point guard MAC HOPSON; A 3rd place finish in the final WAC standings; And an invitation to the upstart CollegeInsider.com Tourney.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first of a two-part look back at Idaho's 2008-09 season. By all accounts, the Vandals surpassed all expectations for them going into the season, as first-year head coach Don "Coach V" Verlin guided the Vandals to their first winning record since 1998-99, a third place finish in the WAC, a First Team All-WAC selection, and an invitation to a post-season tournament. All of this for a team picked at or near the bottom of the WAC by the media and coaches going into the season.


Sometime during the 2007-08 basketball season, with both the men's and women's basketball programs suffering through another season of heavy losses, the decision was made by the University of Idaho Athletics Department to "go in another direction." For the men's program in particular, frustration was mounting as the team was mired in ten consecutive years without a winning season and mounting losses as a new member of the Western Athletic Conference. On the heels of that decision, former coaches George Pfeifer (men's coach) and Mike Divilbiss (women's coach) were released, and coaching searches begun.

Coach Don Verlin.
Shortly afterward, two new coaches were hired – Don Verlin, a longtime assistant at Utah State was hired on March 24, 2008 to take over the men's program, and Jon Newlee, a successful head coach at Idaho State, was selected to take over the women's program.

A theme was chosen for the 2008-09 season, shared by both teams: "Restoring The Glory." There was an obvious reference to past successes by Vandal men's and women's basketball teams, including a WNIT championship by the women in 1986, an NCAA Sweet 16 appearance by the men in 1982, and references to the large crowds that were the order of the day in Moscow.

There were several boosters on hand for public receptions to welcome Newlee and Verlin, but the general attitude of Vandal Nation was "wait and see." They had been hopeful many times in recent years but had seen those hopes less than fulfilled.

Attendance was, by any standard, sad. The men averaged 867 in their early non-conference schedule and the women average less than that. Ironically, those fans who did regularly make their way into Memorial Gym and the Cowan Spectrum to watch Vandal basketball this year got a very clear answer an old proverbial question: "Can lightening strike twice in the same place?"

In a manner of speaking, during the 2008-09 basketball season lightening struck the Vandal Athletic Center twice. It just happened to hit two different spots -- the men's basketball locker room and the women's basketball locker room – as Verlin and Newlee captured lightening in a bottle taking two second-division WAC basketball programs and propelling them to the upper echelons of the WAC standings in one dynamic season.

Guard Kashif Watson
Did the Vandal Nation catch on in time to get in on the fun? The men's attendance figures offer a solid answer. The average home attendance in 2007-08 was 1,137. The 2008-09 men's team debuted with a 78-69 win over North Dakota State (an NCAA tournament team) before 508 fans in Memorial Gym during fall recess. The next home game saw the Vandals destroy UC Irvine in the Cowan Spectrum 101-47 in a game witnessed by 648. In five nonconference home games the Vandals averaged 867 fans. All five games came during campus vacation periods for the students. The last home game the men played was against Drake University March 18 in the opening round of the CollegeInsider.com Tournament. It was the first day of spring break at the University. This time Memorial Gym was sold out – 1,502 fans, the vast majority of them non-students – wedged into the building and their cheers shook it to its foundations as the Vandals pulled out a 69-67 victory over Drake University of Des Moines, Iowa. It was Idaho's first post-season tournament win since Don Monson coached the Vandals to a 69-67 (déjà-vu) win over Iowa (another irony) to put the Vandals in the NCAA Sweet 16 on March 14th, 1982.

The critical fact about the crowd for the Drake game: Many fans were watching their first Vandal game of the season and they seemed to leave the gym smiling and looking forward to more action next fall.

The Vandals did it with just three returning seniors – Luis Augusto, Trevor Morris and Terrence Simmons, plus junior point guard Mac Hopson, a redshirt transfer from Washington State, son of former Vandal star Phil Hopson. Verlin retained Mike Score and Mike Freeman from the previous coaching staff and then scored a major coup by hiring assistant Ray Lopes. Lopes, a former WAC coach of the Year at Fresno State, had been an assistant with the Idaho Stampede of the NBA Development League. The quartet hit the recruiting trail hard to bring in a wealth of talent including a number of transfers from other four-year schools who redshirted this season but were able to practice with the squad and will be eligible next year.

Guard Terrence Simmons
Verlin was the offensive guru, based on his 15 years working as an assistant for Stew Morrill at Colorado State and Utah State. His emphasis on teamwork, precise execution of plays and unselfishness took a while for the players to perfect, but it became the perfect system for the Vandals. Lopes is a defensive mastermind, and more than one opposing coach left the floor after facing the Vandals pouring over a stat sheet that showed a dismal offensive performance compared to their normal post-game figures.

The Vandals showed glimpses of what they could do in the non-conference season but had trouble putting a total game together. They specialized in solid second half comebacks and were exceptionally tough at home throughout the season (in the final totals Idaho was 13-3 at home).

If you want to pinpoint a date when the breakthrough came, make it January 3, 2009. Five days after a disappointing 61-59 loss at Idaho State, the Vandals drew road games at Nevada and Utah State to open the WAC season. In Reno, the Vandals absolutely stunned the Wolf Pack with a 78-73 defeat, their first against Nevada since joining the WAC, breaking a 7-game Pack win streak. Two nights later Coach V faced Morrill in Logan, Utah in an uncomfortable matchup against his mentor and a team he had helped mold. The Aggies won a 70-61 battle, and by the end of the game the Vandals were no longer able to sneak up on the WAC.

They were established as a team that could play with the best that the Western Athletic Conference had to offer.


Tomorrow night, we'll post Part II, with a look back at the WAC schedule, Idaho's first shot at post-season action in over a decade, and an overview of the team's accomplishments.



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