The 2009-10 Idaho Vandals men’s basketball schedule has been released, and we sat down yesterday with coach Don Verlin to find out his thoughts on the Vandals’ foes and the chase for the Western Athletic Conference championship.
Tomorrow, in the second half of the interview, we’ll quiz Don on his scheduling philosophy and the challenge of putting together a winnable mid-major schedule.
Vandal Nation: I have to say, this looks a lot like a Stew Morrill schedule down at Utah State.
Don Verlin: Well, I did them at Utah State, so it would look pretty similar! We don’t have as many home games as those guys have. They have 19 home games and are hosting a tournament — it’s a great deal for them. I wish we had more home games. That’s the thing I don’t like about our schedule.
You’re opening up the season with some real road challenges, at Utah and North Dakota State.
That’s going to be a tough trip. Utah, they’re a real good team that won the Mountain West and went to the NCAA Tournament last year. Then we’ve got to get to Fargo, not an easy journey, to play North Dakota State, which won the Summit League. Two of our first three games are played against conference champion, NCAA Tournament teams. Early on, we are going to find out exactly where our team is at.
Comparing the tentative schedule to the final one, you were able to move the Portland game up to early December. Was that so the student crowd will be in full force?
Yep, that’s exactly why we did it. It’s going to be on a Sunday afternoon, 5 p.m. start. I thought that after Sunday football, our fans would come out and watch us play. It’s going to be our first game back in the Dome and we’re excited about that. Portland’s a very good West Coast Conference squad, they beat Nevada and Washington last year and took Oregon to overtime. They return everyone so it’ll be a real test.
They beat us last year too.
Yes they did, and we’re going to want a little payback for that.
There’s some fans who have grumbled about the perceived “strength” of this schedule. How would you respond to them?
There’s no shortage of strength here, if you do your homework basketball-wise. North Dakota State almost upset Kansas, Utah got to the tournament and lost to Arizona. There’s two really quality opponents. You’ve got Portland, which is a top West Coast Conference team. We take on Washington State — we have a four-year contract to keep playing that rivalry. There’s a return BracketBuster game at Cal State-Northridge, they’re an NCAA Tournament team that won the Big West Conference, they return almost everybody plus some of the guys who were hurt last year are healthy again. You know, last year we had the second toughest schedule in the WAC. I’m not sure we won’t have the toughest this season.
Talk about playing Seattle U. in KeyArena.
That’s a great game for us — great for our alumni, great for our players and great for our recruiting. We’ve got a two-year deal signed with them, to play home and home in two consecutive years. I’m excited about that long-term deal. They’re trying to play their games in KeyArena and we really wanted to play a game in KeyArena for our Seattle fans. We have a lot of alumni there and we need to give them a chance to come out and see us. The hard part for us is, those games are during the league season, but they’re close enough that we can get a quick plane flight there and back. It shouldn’t take too much of a toll mid-season.
For the second year in a row, Idaho will be hosting a BracketBuster. That’s a nice coup.
What happens in the WAC, with us having nine teams, someone gets to go back twice and we happened to be that team this year. We had a lot of communication with the WAC, because with our situation with Mem Gym and the Dome, we had a hard time getting a bunch of home games. It’s best for us to play at home in the spring, so it all worked out.
If the Vandals do well, that game could well be against a marquee mid-major foe.
Exactly. If we do what we hope to do and play well in the preseason, that gives us the RPI to get a real nice opponent. I don’t know for sure who plays home and away, but it could be someone like a St. Mary’s or a Missouri Valley school, Drake or an Illinois State.
Let’s switch gears to the conference season. You’ve got a three-game back-to-back-to-back homestand, against Utah State, Boise State and Fresno State, that looks pivotal in the Vandals’ tournament hopes.
That stretch of the season, I think, will determine where we finish in the conference. You have to take care of your home court in the WAC. We come back from a long road trip to Hawai’i and San Jose State, two games we have to be competitive in, and then have to defend home court against three quality teams. That’s a huge opportunity for us, at that point of the season, and we need to be ready to play and ready to take advantage of it.