The season ended similar to the way it began for the Idaho men’s basketball team — amid a landscape of chaos.
Idaho was freshly eliminated from the Big Sky tournament in Boise and about to board the bus home to Moscow when the Vandals learned the tournament was canceled Thursday because of coronavirus concerns.
It was full-circle for a season that started with the firing of longtime coach Don Verlin in the offseason after the finding of alleged minor NCAA violations.
Zac Claus took the reins in July on an interim basis, and scraped together a team with key returners like Big Sky second-teamer Trevon Allen and last-minute additions like juco standout Damen Thacker.
The rag-tag Vandals suffered a series of heartbreakers to start Big Sky play with losses in four of their first five games by a combined 13 points.
Idaho suffered some blowouts too, finishing the season with an 8-24 record — a slight improvement over the team’s 5-27 record in 2018-19 — and a 4-16 mark in conference play.
But athletic director Terry Gawlik had seen enough to give Claus a chance at building the program back to its winning ways. With the loss of eight players from its 2018-19 roster and a short time to prepare for the season, Claus had shown enough to be named the full-time head coach in February.
In their final two games, the Vandals defeated in-state rival Idaho State 80-76 for their 12th consecutive senior day win, then narrowly missed out on an upset of Southern Utah in the first round of the Big Sky tourney, falling 75-69 on Wednesday.
“I told these guys in the locker room, we had a mass exodus in the spring and Trevon and his teammates stuck in there,” Claus said after the game. “They kept fighting. We had a number of guys that committed to play here and they could’ve jumped ship, they could’ve gone somewhere else.
“I would’ve shook hands with them and wished them well. I understand the circumstances, it wasn’t what they signed up for.”
Barring any unexpected departures, UI loses only two players this season — Allen and graduate transfer Quinton Forrest. But Allen’s leadership and 21.6 points per game will be greatly missed.
The senior from Clarkston High School via Lapwai was second in the conference in scoring and the only Vandal to average double figures.
After being a key backup on 19- and 22-win seasons to start his career, he was UI’s biggest bright spot and leader during the last two years of rebuilding.
“He’s one of my favorite people I’ve ever been around, and the fact that I’ve had the chance to coach him for four straight years, it’s been an absolute treat,” said Claus, who previously was an assistant on Verlin’s staff. “He is stuck with me for the rest of his life because I will keep tabs on him, make sure he’s doing what he’s supposed to do. He is a first-class representative of our program with anything that we do.”
After his final game in black and gold, Allen said he has no regrets on his career.
“It’s sad it’s the last one, but not too bad just because I know we left all we could on the floor,” Allen said. “As the final buzzer went off, I was just trying to soak it all in for sure.
“Just being able to play in the state of Idaho, I’m from Idaho, going to the University of Idaho — I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
Who will step up into that leadership role next season remains to be seen, but UI should have more returners on its roster next season than it had for the previous two.
Scott Blakney, a 6-foot-8 center, made strides this year with 8.2 points per game and 4.4 rebounds per game. His 31 starts were the most on the team.
Fellow incoming seniors Thacker (6.0 points) and Marquell Fraser (7.1 points, 4.9 rebounds) also were key contributors.
Moscow High School graduate and walk-on Gabe Quinnett started the final five games and twice scored 14 points in a game as a freshman.
“These guys fought together,” Claus said after the SUU game, “they got along great and we have better days ahead of us because what these guys to my right (Allen and Thacker) and the rest of those guys in that locker room have brought to the table this year.”
Stephan Wiebe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, by phone at (208) 883-4624 and on Twitter at @StephanSports.