Vandals look to get back to winning ways this season

Scott Blakney is Idaho’s top returning player after he averaged 8.2 points and 4.4 rebounds per game in 2019-20.

The Idaho men’s basketball team is eager to begin Year 2 of the Zac Claus era, but it will have to wait at least another week to hit the court.

Idaho’s first three games were canceled late Tuesday because of coronavirus issues. The Vandals were set to play Seattle University at 2 p.m. today in the U.S. Bank Portland (Ore.) Invitational at the University of Portland, then face the Pilots on Friday and William Jessup on Saturday.

Their Dec. 3 Big Sky Conference opener at Sacramento State also now will serve as the season opener.

Idaho coach Zac Claus said last week his team is rolling with the punches in an uncertain season. The Vandals are hoping to find their first season of double-digit wins since 2017-18, when they went 22-9.

“Our guys have been terrific in terms of their work ethic, their concentration and adhering to all the guidelines that have been in front of them,” Claus said. “Really proud of their efforts in what they’re doing and I know they’re really fired up to get a chance to play.”

Fans aren’t allowed at games this season because of the coronavirus, but games will be streamed on PlutoTV and, and on the radio at KRPL-AM (1400).

Idaho, which went 8-24 in 2019-20, must replace leading scorer, Trevon Allen, who graduated and took his 21.6 points per game overseas, where he plays professionally in Poland.

But the Vandals could boast a deeper team this year, with the addition of four newcomers and several players who have recovered from nagging injuries.

“I think in terms of the dynamic of the roster as a whole, I think our skillset as a whole is better across the board,” Claus said. “Trevon was a dynamic scorer and someone that we leaned on, so it’s something that we intend to be able to spread out amongst multiple guys, and we feel comfortable with the group that we have.”

UI’s top returner is senior center Scott Blakney. The 6-foot-8 Prosser, Wash., product averaged 8.2 points and 4.4 rebounds per game, often going up against bigger players in the post. Blakney said he wants to improve his rebounding in his final season.

Also inside are 6-11 junior Jack Wilson and 6-10 freshman Tanner Christensen, from University High School in Spokane Valley. A healthy Wilson and the addition of the lengthy Christensen should boost UI’s play in the paint.

Juco product Deandre Robinson, a 6-4 forward/guard from Tallahassee (Fla.) Community College, “brings a scoring and shooting ability,” Claus said, and 6-7 senior forward Babacar Thiombane is “playing his best basketball he’s played in an Idaho uniform.”

The guards might be UI’s most intriguing, and deepest, position. Allen’s departure opens up an opportunity for several players to jump in and scoop up minutes and points.

Claus said point guard will be manned by senior Damen Thacker and freshman Hunter-Jack Madden.

Thacker averaged six points in 20 minutes per game last season, but poured in 22.6 the previous year at Walla Walla Community College.

Madden, who hails from Sydney, notched 24.7 points, 8.1 rebounds and 4.5 assists at Shore School as a senior.

“They’re handling the ball well, they’re both making great decisions, both shooting the ball well from the perimeter,” Claus said of his point guards.

Other guards in the mix include shifty senior Ja’Vary Christmas, Moscow’s Gabe Quinnett, steady Chance Garvin, redshirt freshman AJ Youngman and newbie Ethan Kilgore, who “comes in with a very physical frame and doesn’t look like your typical freshman.”

Quinnett, Garvin and Youngman are the most potent from deep out of the bunch.

It was a challenging offseason for a team that had to communicate virtually for most of the spring and summer, and find places to work out mostly individually.

But the players bonded quickly when everyone finally got together in the preseason. Seniors, like Blakney, have helped bring everyone up to speed. In total, eight players have yet to see the court as Vandals.

“One thing about all the new guys is everyone wants to come and work hard every day,” Blakney said. “It’s noticeable that people want to come in and they want to get better. They’re putting up extra shots after practice, before practice.

“It’s been really nice.”

Wiebe can be reached at, (208) 883-4624 and on Twitter @StephanSports.

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