Finally At Home

It’s finally happening, The Idaho Vandals are opening the ICCU Arena. I remember first hearing about the arena in 2015 when I was in school. The university spoke of a multi-purpose venue for Vandal events. This facility also meant something new for Vandal Basketball: a home.

Pictures don’t do the arena justice. You have to come and see it for yourself. It’s amazing.

I have always been a fan of the Idaho Women’s Basketball Team and I am proud of where Jon Newlee has taken this program. For as long as I have been watching Idaho Basketball, they would play games in Memorial Gym for the first part of the season, move to Cowan Spectrum to play games for a couple of months there and then go back to Mem Gym because of Jazz Fest. As a fan and a member of the band, it never felt like either Mem Gym or Cowan Spectrum were places I would call home.

The ICCU Arena will be more than just a home. It means that Jon Newlee, his assistant coaches Christa Sanford, Drew Muscatell, and Taylor Pierce will finally have a top notch facility to show off to recruits. It has been amazing to see Coach Newlee and his staff building teams that are competing for Big Sky titles year in and year out in Memorial Gym and Cowan Spectrum, I can’t wait to see the caliber of players they can bring in with the facility. It will also mean that former players will have a place to come back to Moscow and be proud of.

It will be a place to host the conference titles and tournament titles that they have won. A place to honor the greats and to cheer our current Vandals to victory in the Moscow winters and springs.

The future is bright for Idaho Women’s Basketball. Without even playing in the new venue, the arena has already paid dividends in recent recruiting classes. This arena means the team will have a dedicated place to come play and workout. I’m excited to see the benefits the ICCU Arena will bring to the team.

While I am excited to see the team in the new arena. I will always have fantastic memories from Mem Gym and Cowan Spectrum.

But don’t just hear it from me, there are plenty of Vandals eager see their team in the ICCU Arena.

Mikayla Ferenz

What does the arena mean to you?

I am so excited the arena is finally done! I remember hearing about the idea on my recruiting visit and I know so many people contributed to making the idea become reality. The arena honors every player, coach, and supporter who has devoted themselves to the success of the Women’s Basketball program.  I am so proud to have been a part of a University and athletic department that values student-athletes’ success and development.  Although I will not have the opportunity to play in the new arena, I am so happy for both programs and I cannot wait to watch a game in it as a fan!

What does it mean to the coaches?

The coaches are so deserving of this new arena.  They dedicate so much to developing us as players and people and have built the program to be extremely competitive.  They have cultivated a culture of family and success.  A big part of the enjoyable experience I had at Idaho is owed to them.  I am so happy the coaches have a new place to call home and I hope it makes their lives easier like they do for us. 

What does it mean for the future of Vandal Women’s Basketball?

The new arena will be tremendous for the future of the program.  Players will now have a devoted space to workout, shoot, and recover whenever they need to.  The arena will also be a big draw to recruits.  Who wouldn’t want to play there?! Everything about it will benefit the program now and in the future.  

Favorite Game?

My favorite game I ever played at Idaho was my senior year versus Denver in the WNIT.  Memorial gym was packed to the rafters and the fans were deafening.  I have never played in a better atmosphere or had more fun in a game than that one.  Taylor and I are so thankful that we got one last game in Memorial and we are grateful for the fans that made it the best one!!! 

Alyssa Charlston

What does the arena mean to you?

One thing that drew me to commit to the University of Idaho was that I could make an impact, instead of just being a number, which is a feeling I got visiting other schools. I had no idea that by the time I graduated, I’d also be leaving a lasting impact, and this arena feels like that reward. I know other Vandals before and after me feel the same, that every hour spent in the weight room or court or field, every win we got, were all seeds being planted. We all would’ve loved to play in ICCU arena, but I think I’m going to feel more emotion sitting inside of it and watching my Vandals, knowing I had a part in it all. BIG SHOUTOUT to other alums that donated, boosters, and sponsors who made big contributions.

What does it mean to the coaches?

They’ve put more hours in than anyone to make this program into what it is! They should feel the most pride. I know they’ll miss all the walks to and from Memorial Gym or Large PEB, switching into Cowan too, but this is going to be a home they built. It will also obviously help them recruit top talent. Our history of success in the last decade is even MORE remarkable when you consider the coaches didn’t have one gym/arena/home to impress future Vandals. 

What does it mean for the future of Vandal Women’s Basketball?

It’s only going to get scarier, in a good way. I think the players there now should be so proud of what they’ve done, this can motivate them to be even greater. Fans better pack that place!! I don’t think people realize that it takes a whole village to create success consistently, and fans are a HUGE part of that. Feeling supported drove my classes of Vandals to do way more than we could’ve imagined. 

Favorite Game?

Favorite game in Memorial was a battle with Seattle U, where we eventually won the regular season WAC Championship. So many members of the athletic department hung around after to celebrate as we took pics with our banner. We felt unstoppable that year and it felt like fate getting to play in Mem instead of Cowan just for that game because of Jazz Fest. 

Favorite game in Cowan was beating New Mexico State when they were still really good my sophomore year. We were down 2 with a couple seconds left, Jon Newlee called a play for me to hit a 3 off a flare screen and it went down. Might be selfish but I’m washed up now so I have to boost my ego sometimes with the glory days.

Nick Weber

Photo Credit: Nick Weber

What does the arena mean to you?

The ICCU Arena is an amazing addition to the campus and gives our basketball teams a great home. It also gives our alumni a dedicated place to check in and catch up with the Vandal Family in the Idaho Alumni Club. I was fortunate to be in the discussions on the UI Alumni Association Board to generate a true win/win in throwing our support behind the arena and the ability to get a “home base” for alumni returning to campus.

What does it mean to the coaches?

The arena is going to be a game changer for our coaching staff, especially in recruiting. One of the challenges the coaches faced with recruits in the past was trying to get those young athletes to look at the best football stadium in the country but try to imagine playing basketball on it. Bringing them into a state of the art basketball arena shows the commitment not only to our student athletes but also to the student experience for every Vandal.

What does it mean for the future of Vandal Women’s Basketball?

I can’t wrap my brain around how much more the arena could level up the dynasty that is our Women’s Basketball program. I love the historical touches incorporated into the player and coach areas of the arena with pieces of Cowan Spectrum in the locker room and in the player entrance. I can’t wait to see how these players make the arena as much a part of the Vandal story, hopefully with a BSC title and NCAA tourney run!

Favorite Game?

I’m going to have to take a memory each from Cowan Spectrum and Mem Gym. My freshman year we had a mens game broadcast on ESPN. I think it was the only time I saw the place sold out or close to it. I can’t remember if we won or lost but that place was rocking. For Mem Gym it’s hands down the WNIT game in 2019. Mem Gym is always such a cool place to watch a game but that one was epic!

Sean Kramer

What does the arena mean to you?

The arena means a lot to me. I thought the Cowan Spectrum had its moments but at the end of the day it was tacky and not representative of the programs we have had in the past and want to be in the future. This arena means so much for all students in all facets of the university.

What does it mean to the coaches?

It’s absolutely unbelievable we have been able to get the types of players we’ve gotten on the men’s and women’s side the last decade with the facilities we offered up compared to our competitors. This is absolutely everything for our coaches and makes Idaho a very viable competitor in recruiting.

What does it mean for the future of Vandal Women’s Basketball?

I can’t put into god damn words how much Jon Newlee deserves this. And it’s really sad that some of our legends like Alyssa Charlston and Mikayla Ferenz won’t get to play in this arena. We’re lucky to still have Jon in the first place, and while he stayed for a number of personal reasons, had he chosen to take up somewhere else he’d have every right to considering the lack of facilities investments. Still, he kept getting the best players in the Pacific Northwest and west coast year in and year out. He’s already the best developer of talent in the Big Sky, now you’re giving him a gorgeous arena, practice facility, locker rooms, coaches offices … are you kidding me? Jon Newlee is going to create a new dynasty here and this is absolutely the legacy Idaho women’s basketball deserves. I really can’t wait for this.

Favorite Game?

I really can’t pick out one, but my favorite games I remember were all losses. They were losses with raucous and loud crowds, however, and I remember thinking both times against New Mexico State and Washington State where we lost at the end, these crowds were awesome. It’s sad we can’t make this happen night in and night out. An intimate arena where we don’t have to worry about noise being spread out through a cavernous Kibbie Dome will help out with that immensely.

Thanks again to Mikayla Ferenz, Alyssa Charlston, Nick Weber and Sean Kramer for letting me ask them questions about the arena. Shout out to Jack Olson for helping me write this story. I Can’t wait to see you all at the First Women’s game in the arena next month! And as always Go Vandals !

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.