MOSCOW, Idaho – In normal times, in the second year of a coaching regime, game philosophy and team personality could be expected to come into clearer focus.
Whether that holds true when seen through the prism of life disrupted by a pandemic has yet to be determined. The extent to which it does should bear directly on the success of an 8-24 Idaho team that nonetheless owned an impressive 74-71 win over Big Sky Conference regular season champ Eastern Washington, and that hung tough, losing eight games by six points or fewer last season.
Coach Zac Claus hopes to see more of the Vandals’ best in his second go-round leading them. “We have a hard-working, competitive group, and we play with a great deal of toughness,” he says of his team. Idaho’s success will hinge “on what we can do defensively at the end of games,” he predicts.
Claus says Idaho can go at least nine deep, and the Vandals will have a broader offensive foundation than last year’s edition that relied heavily on the production of senior Trevon Allen, Idaho’s leading scorer at 21.6 points per game, which was also second in the Big Sky and 15th nationally.
“On offense, we’ve changed a few things around. We have a good, solid, balanced attack,” says Claus.
Having five experienced seniors has helped Idaho stay focused on doing all it can to play a season in the COVID-19 era, according to Claus. “You can only control as much as you can,” he says. But the Vandals have been meticulous about wearing masks, reducing their social circles to limit potential exposure to coronavirus and being tested regularly.
“We’re getting used to the new normal in how we do things,” Claus says. If that includes being just a bit tougher at the end of close games, Idaho may be able to look back with satisfaction on this most unusual season.
The wings are solid, with senior Chance Garvin, sophomore Gabe Quinnett and freshman Ethan Kilgore, who poured in 25.6 points per game in his final prep season. “He’s a talented freshman wing with a scoring mentality,” according to Claus. Another senior, Damen Thacker, will anchor the backcourt. He started 23 games last season as a junior college transfer.
“He is arguably our best defensive player, and his assist-to-turnover ratio in practice has been phenomenal,” Claus says of Thacker. Quinnett benefited from appearing in 22 games last year. “We can rely on him knowing exactly how we want to play,” says Claus. Ja’Vary Christmas “is as fast as anybody on our roster.” DeAndre Robinson uses his 6-4 frame and speed to challenge defenses, and A.J. Youngman, who redshirted last year after battling injuries, has returned in good health.
Isaac Berglund, from Deer Park, is also coming off a redshirt season. Kendall McHugh and Hunter-Jack Madden are newcomers.
Leading returning scorer Scott Blakney contributed 8.2 points and 4.4 rebounds per game from the post last year.
Blakney, 6-8, “is obviously our most accomplished returning guy up front,” says Claus. He is backed by 6-11 sophomore Jack Wilson, “who is in the best shape of his life,” according to Claus, and Tanner Christensen, a 6-10 freshman from University High School. “He has tremendous size and length, and he is a deterrent on the defensive end,” Claus says. At 6-7, Babacar Thiombane “has been terrific on both ends of the court. He’s definitely using his length in going to the glass.” Michael Hanshaw, 6-9, paces the Vandals in a key category. “He’s as good an offensive rebounder as we have,” Claus says.
Claus served as Idaho’s interim coach last season, when the Vandals posted an 8-24 overall record, 4-16 in the Big Sky Conference. Claus was hired as head coach in February. He has been on the Vandals’ staff since the 2015-16 season. He had prior stops as an assistant at Nevada, Sacramento State, Portland State, Austin, and Nebraska Wesleyan.
Claus played at Creighton and the University of Nebraska before concluding his playing career with two years at Eastern Washington. At Idaho, he is assisted by associate head coach Doug Novsek and Kenny Tripp, both heading into their second seasons with the Vandals. The Vandals also added a third assistant, Johnny Hill, who spent the past three seasons as a Grand Canyon assistant.