Idaho, A Basketball School?

The Big Sky men’s basketball champions are crowned! I couldn’t help but shake one little statistic I heard during last nights broadcast: this was Montana State’s first title game appearance since 2009. If they had pulled it off, it would have been their first title since 1996, making it only the 3rd time in school history they made it to the big dance. This is a school that, admittedly, is not a basketball school. They don’t claim to be, they don’t have a rich basketball history, and in fact most years there’s a running joke about Bobcat basketball! Yet, here they were in the title game.

What about the victor? Eastern Washington University, financially strapped and in the shadow of one of the greatest college hoops dynasties of all-time, the Gonzaga Bulldogs, punched their tickets to the big dance. For the Eagles though, this is more common. They have 9 title game appearances all time. That is the third most in Big Sky history. They will also be playing in the NCAA tournament for the 3rd time in program history, two of the appearances in the past 6 seasons (2015 & 2021). Once again, all this recent success while financially unstable and in the shadows of the Kennel.

Which got me asking myself… Where is Idaho? 

Idaho, a program that clings to a 1982 sweet sixteen appearance and the great Hall of Famer, Gus Johnson. But as the motto goes, what have you done for me recently?

The Idaho Vandals men’s team has not made the NCAA tournament since 1990, garnering a 13 seed and losing to 4 seed Louisville 78-59. That loss is the end of an era, an era that saw us make the NCAA tournament four times in nine years and the NIT once in that time as well. I remember growing up hearing about how good Idaho was in hoops. But last night made me realize, I’ve never really ever seen it for myself. It has been 31 years since Idaho has made the NCAA tournament. I am 28 years old. In fact, 1993 was the last year Idaho was even in a conference tournament final, until a miracle run in 2014 as the 5 seed in the WAC. We have barely even made any semi-finals appearances since 2004 in the Big West and recently two in the Big Sky. But is that the standard for a great, historically good hoops program or are we just living a lie?

Maybe I was a bit blinded to this fact as notably I am not a hoops guy, and growing up I had heard the stories but never watched the team. When I got to campus in 2010 things were better than they had been in a white. We had made the CIT twice while I was in school, made the conference tournament final once (2014) and had a huge instant classic upset win against #17 Utah State on ESPN2, following that up with a trip to Boise for a hard fought loss against the Broncos three days later on ESPNU. When I left campus in 2015 my takeaway on our men’s hoops program was, they are good, they just choke in the conference tournament. We had been upset in the conference tournament so many times. I didn’t think coach Don Verlin would ever even get us a win in one. I was pretty close on that prediction. Though getting us to 5 post season tournaments in 11 years (4 CIT’s, 1 CBI) and constantly being around 20 wins, 2 semi-final appearances in Big Sky tournament (2016 &2017) and the WAC conference final in 2014, Verlin went 4-11, with 4 upset losses in conference tournaments.

Yet, today, that feels like the glory days. Being a high seed, usually getting upset in the conference tournament and having All-Decade players like Kyle Barone, Jeff Ledbetter, Stephen Madison, Vic Sanders, Djim Bandoumel, etc. is better than what we have now. Hell, it is better than what we had before. We had very little to hang our hat on from 1991 to 2009. It was 18 years of just existing, telling stories and being a part of three different conferences.

So what happened to Idaho? Was Don Verlin really what got us looking to be as close to our 80’s self as we have looked since? Are we really so lost without him, that everyone wants the new guy out so bad they can replace him with coaching retreads like Larry Eustachy and Dan Monson? Is that really where we are at?

Giving a coach one year and thinking our next move is a guy like Monson? He will be 60 years old, hasn’t had a winning season since 2015, and we probably won’t have to pay a buyout for, because he might be flat-out fired from his current school? Or Eustachy who is 65 and hasn’t coached in three seasons and was put on leave by his former employer for “creating a culture of fear and intimidation”. Is this really where we are at? Because I’m going to be honest, those options suck.

Luckily for Idaho we get to turn to a new page and start a new chapter. We are building a new beautiful basketball arena that will be the gem of the Big Sky Conference and one of the top mid-major facilities out west, AKA the house Jon Newlee built. We should become a destination school for hoopers in the west.

Things look grim right now with the announcement that five players have entered the transfer portal (Hunter-Jack Madden, Anthony Youngerman, DeAndre Robinson , Ja’vary Christmas & Scott Blakeny). But, a reminder, the portal is a double edged sword. It can give as much as it takes. It now means we have room for five more players we wouldn’t have otherwise had. Which after this year’s results, is probably a good thing. You look at a team like Weber, who with a few transfers last year, went from 9th in conference to 3rd. Or, to bring it full circle, Montana State, whose entire starting lineup is almost all transfers. In this day and age, it is more possible than ever to go from last to first.

Let’s settle down now that the emotions of the season are over. Claus is our guy for next season, whether you are happy about it or not. He has a three year contract, meaning he has two seasons remaining. If he cannot get it done with the roster openings, guys like McHugh coming back, and a beautiful new arena to attract recruits? Then we have real problems and should move on. If that is the case, the next guy we get, I hope is better than Eustachy and Monson. Because we are better than that, or at least should be.

If Claus isn’t the young, energetic, trend breaker this program needs, then I hope Athletic Director Terry Gawlik flexes some of those Wisconsin connections, snoops around Spokane area, or hell, even steals Leon Rice. But surely we can find someone to get us back to our 80’s dominance, or at the least, a more reliable version of the Verlin era. We have to be able to… right?

If on Selection Sunday 2026, after five years of the tournament being in Boise, I am still not writing about Idaho in a championship game, with all the positive things going for us in coming years, then it is time to quit calling ourselves a school with a rich men’s basketball history.