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.

University of Idaho Vandals men’s basketball All-Decade team

Now that we’ve compiled the most definitive, trustworthy and legit All-Decade team for the University of Idaho Vandals football program we decided we’d go ahead and do the same thing for men’s basketball.

It’s been an interesting decade all around with players who’ve achieved history with the program individually, Top 25 upsets, postseason appearances, great conference finishes and overall an immensely more successful decade than the last. Unfortunately, it’s ended poorly and we haven’t actually gone dancing.

Still, we want to honor the best of the best who gave this program their all, putting it out on the court night in and night out to represent our great university and to try and restore what makes us proud about this Vandals program.

Six voters including Tubs at the Club contributors as well as friends of the site compiled their lists of a starting five and a sixth man bench player. We’ve compiled this to a First-Team starting squad, a sixth man and the rest of the bench to fill out 13 spots.

If you’d like to complain about our list, please hit us up on Twitter!

* = Consensus selection

(Cover photos from Spencer Farrin Photography. If you’re on the Palouse and have anything you need photos for, especially sports, please pay this man. He is an absolutely talented professional and you will find no better service for photography. You just won’t. Oh, and he’s a Vandal).

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Men’s Basketball All-Decade Team

Point guard: Victor Sanders*

(2014-2018)
Victor Sanders arrived in Moscow as an unbelievably under-recruited prospect from Portland powerhouse-program Jefferson High, home to the NBA’s Terrence Jones and fellow Vandal All-Decade teammate Stephen Madison. You’d think by the time Sanders arrived in the fall of 2014 programs around the Northwest would learn to trust players from that program. Their loss was Idaho’s gain. Victor left Idaho’s SECOND all-time leading scorer behind only Orlando Lightfoot. The lengthy guard changed the way Idaho’s packline defense worked, causing havoc with his ability to jump lanes and get transition started. He could drive, he could rebound, he was often Idaho’s best shooter when Connor Hill wasn’t on the court. He was an all-around talent who exemplified how Idaho recruited and developed prospects. The Vandals won 38 conference games in the last three years of Sanders’ tenure as he became a regular starter, and he also went 3-1 against Washington State. Most of all, Sanders was a fantastic teammate. The three time All-Big Sky selection sported Perrion Callandret’s No. 1 jersey on Senior Night in 2018 to show solidarity for his teammate who could not shake a terribly unfortunate injury situation.

2-guard: Connor Hill

(2011-2015)
The pride of Post Falls, Idaho expected to be able to head to Pullman under coach Ken Bone, but having only received a preferred walk-on he decided to keep it in the Gem State and head to Moscow instead. The Cougs probably regret that decision. Hill arrived in 2011 and graduated in 2015 as Idaho’s all-time leading 3-point shooter with 340 made treys in four seasons, and left as the fifth leading scorer of all-time. He’s since been bumped to sixth. Hill’s tenure included an appearance in the WAC Tournament championship game and a win over Washington State his senior season. Hill continued to develop as a seasoned shooter throughout his career, mastering the four-point play and needing only the slightest amount of space to get off his deadly snipes.

Small Forward: Stephen Madison*

(2010-2014)
Stephen Madison was not supposed to become as legendary as he became. Madison came to Moscow having been overshadowed at Jefferson High School by a pair of teammates who would end up at Washington and Kentucky respectively – and then the NBA soon thereafter. A lanky kid who was only comfortable shooting 3s, Madison became Idaho’s most lethal weapon inside the paint and the perimeter. He stretched the floor with his ability to pull up and shoot, and his ability to put the ball on the floor for drives or body up defenders in the paint if he wanted. He became a master at getting the line and coming up with big baskets when Idaho needed them. Madison was an All-Conference selection his senior year, barely losing out on Player of the Year in a tight contest with a rival from New Mexico State. His last game as a Vandal was in the WAC Tournament Championship game having left as the second all-time leading scorer in Vandals history at the time. Sanders has since bumped him down to third. Madison scored 51 points in the quarterfinals and semifinals of the tournament in order to get Idaho on the precipice of its first NCAA Tournament since 1990 before falling short.

Stretch Forward: Brayon “BJ” Blake

(2016-2018)
Brayon “BJ” Blake is the only junior college transfer to make the starting five, which just goes to show how good he was and just how important his impact was on this basketball program. Blake came to Moscow from North Idaho College, by way of Seattle powerhouse Garfield High. Blake was an instrumental part of a core of Pacific Northwest players in 2018 which teamed to put together Idaho’s most successful win total in 24 years, marking up 22 Ws in 2017-18 en route to a second-place finish in the Big Sky. Blake was a first-team All-Big Sky selection who collected 12 double-doubles and came 0.4 rebounds per game away from averaging one. Oh, and he smashed Washington State in his one contest against the Cougs in Moscow. Blake was a special talent, able to bang in the paint for rebounds and post points, but also able to step out and shoot comfortably. Defending him wasn’t easy, he was a versatile defender and he presented the coaching staff with lineup options. His senior season was pretty comparable to the season in which Kyle Barone won WAC Player of the Year.

Center: Kyle Barone*

(2009-2013)
Kyle Barone personified the transformation of the Idaho Vandals program from a cellar-dweller joke in the 2000s to a competitive force in the 2010s, which may not have been a great program but one that was going to make it difficult for teams to come to Moscow and win and put the program in a position to compete. Barone was a key component of two Vandal teams which finished third in a stacked, competitive Western Athletic Conference, beat Utah State in back-to-back seasons at home (including a season in which the Aggies were ranked), and went on the road to beat Pac-12 opponents Oregon and Oregon State in back-to-back seasons. Barone capped off all of that with a WAC Player of the Year campaign his senior season averaging 17.2 points per game and 9.7 rebounds per game. Barone is currently seventh all-time on Idaho’s scoring list. One would be tempted to call Barone a finesse player given his ability to pull up from mid-range and utilize space, but that wouldn’t do justice to a player who ended his career 260 offensive rebounds and 122 blocks in four seasons, two as an every-night starter.

Sixth Man: G Mike Scott

(2013-2015)
Mike Scott came to Moscow in 2013 when the Vandals had a point guard crisis with the departure of Landon Tatum. The season before featured a revolving door at the position in which nobody had made enough of an impact to hold the job down. The roster reshuffled, and in came Mike Scott from Antelope Valley College. Scott locked the job down mid-way through his junior season, with the coaching staff loving his ability to distribute and protect the basketball. His senior year featured an offensive transformation, becoming one of the best shooters on the squad and leading the Big Sky in assist-to-turnover ratio. Idaho didn’t quite have the depth to compete during Scott’s two-year tenure, though Scott was important in ushering the Vandals into the Big Sky and developing the younger of generation of player who would see the program attain success in its new conference. Scott allowed the Vandals to push the pace when they wanted with his speed up and down the court, as well as his ability to crash the boards to start transition.

Bench:

G Landon Tatum, G Jeff Ledbetter, F Djim Bandoumel, G Perrion Callandret, G Deremy Geiger, G Mac Hopson, F Jordan Scott

  • Tatum (2009-2012) Started every game as a senior on a 19-win team. Calm, tactical floor general +++ Ledbetter (2009-2011) A pure shooter, played an instrumental role in an offense which beat Oregon and ranked Utah State in 2010-11 +++ Bandoumel (2010-2012) Definition of a role player, efficient scorer, versatile rebounder, great defender, didn’t turn the ball over. Key to the 2012 third-place squad +++ Callendret (2013-2018) Injuries couldn’t diminish the talent and hard work put in by Callandret, who still put up 900 career points, gave us electrifying dunks and contributed to the historic 22-win squad +++ Geiger (2010-2012) All-around guard and go-to scorer on 2012 third-place squad. Represented the Vandals with a long European pro career  +++ Hopson (2008-2010) An important part of Idaho’s transition into the current decade’s success, averaged over 15.4 points per game in his career, ushered in the decade by destroying Boise State down in Boise +++ Scott (2014-2018) Spent four seasons developing into one of Idaho’s best defenders ever, tough offensive rebounder coming from the perimeter, offensively efficient attacking the basket.

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Theo

Brian

One Victor Sanders Mike Scott Mike Scott Landon Tatum Landon Tatum Mike Scott
Two Jeff Ledbetter Deremy Geiger Connor Hill Victor Sanders Jeff Ledbetter Mac Hopson
Three Stephen Madison Victor Sanders Victor Sanders Stephen Madison Victor Sanders Victor Sanders
Four Djim Bandoumel Stephen Madison Stephen Madison BJ Blake Stephen Madison Stephen Madison
Five Kyle Barone Kyle Barone Kyle Barone Kyle Barone Kyle Barone Kyle Barone
Sixth Man Connor Hill Connor Hill BJ Blake Perrion Callandret Connor Hill BJ Blake