Idaho has improved as a basketball program under fifth-year coach Don Verlin.
But Verlin is missing an essential piece of the puzzle before the Vandals can move on as a program. Verlin has yet to win a Western Athletic Conference Tournament game as the No. 6 Vandals take on No. 3 New Mexico State in a 1 p.m., quarterfinal today at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, Nev.
“It’s important for the program,” Verlin said. “We have been the three seed twice and haven’t got it done. What is important is to go out and play our best basketball. New Mexico State is as good as anyone in the conference right now. We know it’s going to be a tough game.”
Idaho is 1-7 all-time in the WAC Tournament and 0-1 against NMSU. The Vandals haven’t won a tournament game since the 2006-07 season under George Pfeifer. Pfeifer lost the next year to NMSU in the only WAC Tournament meeting between the schools.
The Vandals have been a No. 3 seed twice under Verlin and a No. 4 seed once with two appearances in the CIT, but success in the conference tournament has eluded the Vandals.
“This may be the toughest first-round draw we have had in my five years,” Verlin said. “You see so many upsets throughout the country this time of year. It’s a new lease on life.”
Today’s game could be the last game for WAC Player of the Year Kyle Barone, who is also seeking his first WAC Tournament win.
“I really want to be around on the weekend,” Barone said. “Last year we were a No. 3 seed and we lost in the first round.”
Barone has been among the top players in the WAC for the past three years, but the Vandals have ran their offense through him this year and Barone averaged 17 points and 10 rebounds per game.
“Last year we had some seniors that could run the offense,” Barone said. “This year they look at me to make plays. Our guards are good at getting to the rim and dishing it off or I clean up offensive rebounds. I expected the offense to run more through me and late in the year, it has been.”
Barone is a tough match up for the Aggies. He had 18 points and 10 rebounds in a 71-70 Aggies victory in Moscow, Idaho. Barone scored 26 points in a 76-74 NMSU win in Las Cruces.
“It was a one-possession game and they won it at the free throw line,” Barone said. “We have lost two games by three points so we have a good idea of what the game is going to be like.”
Aggies guard Daniel Mullings hit critical free throws in the last minute in both NMSU wins over Idaho this year.
“They are going to remember that,” Mullings said. “They know we beat them twice already and they are going to go with the mentality that it’s time for revenge. We know it’s one-and-done and we don’t want to go home.”
Barone will be a handful for the Aggies today, but NMSU can’t let wings Stephen Madison and Connor Hill get going. Barone, Madison and Hill account for 43.7 of Idaho’s 69 points per game. Hill was 3-for-4 from 3-point range for 21 points in the Vandals’ loss in Las Cruces.
“Connor Hill brings a lot of 3s so we have to run him off the line and make sure he does not get good looks at the basket,” Mullings said. “I played pretty good defense on him but he made a lot of great shots. I have to look at what I can do even better to try to shut him down.”
Conventional wisdom says that it’s difficult to beat a team three times in the same season. Verlin is hoping that trend holds.
Jason Groves can be reached at (575) 541-5459. Follow him on Twitter @jpgroves.