Media Day brings optimism, eagerness for Vandal hoops

Idaho’s Scott Blakney (34) shoots over Idaho State defender Chidi Udengwu (4) in the second half of a Big Sky Conference game March 7 at the Cowan Spectrum.

The Big Sky Conference’s “Digital Media Day” on Thursday marked the league’s first official basketball event since it shut its conference championships in March because of the coronavirus pandemic.

While a series of online interviews — with no actual media members present virtually or in-person — doesn’t have the same excitement as a March Madness tournament, it was a sign the return of college hoops is imminent.

“We’re very grateful to have them back,” UI men’s coach Zac Claus said of his team. “We’re glad that we’re up and running here on campus and looking forward to the season.”

Claus’ team earlier this week was picked to finish in last in the conference’s coaches and media preseason polls.

It’s no surprise considering the rebuilding Vandals finished 8-24 last season and lost 21.6 points per game from departedstar guard Trevon Allen, now playing professionally in Poland. But Idaho is eager to prove the pollsters wrong.

With the usual summer workouts axed because of the coronavirus, Idaho didn’t have its usual team bonding time. That hurts a team that features eight players who haven’t seen the court yet.

That means preseason practices are more pivotal than ever to bring everyone up to speed. That pressure falls on the Vandals’ five seniors, most notably point guard Damen Thacker (6.0 points per game, 89.3 percent on free throws) and center Scott Blakney (8.2 points, 4.4 rebounds).

“What I’m trying to do is help a lot of the newer guys, the younger guys,” Blakney said. “Show them what we do, how we do it.”

Of UI’s newcomers, the most intriguing might be freshman Hunter-Jack Madden of Sydney. The 6-1 guard averaged 24.7 points, 8.1 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game as a senior for Shore School.

Vandals ink Salih

The Idaho men announced the signing of Yusef Salih, who will join the Vandals in 2021-22.

Salih hails from Warrenton, Va., where he helped lead the Highland Hawks to a 28-3 record, including 12-0 in conference play. His team advanced to the semifinal round of the state tournament.

The 6-foot-2 point guard averaged 14.5 points, 4.5 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game last season.

“(Salih) is a terrific young man with a wonderful maturity about him that was readily apparent in our recruitment of him,” Claus said. “Yusef is incredibly driven and we are confident that he will have a meaningful impact here at Idaho.”

UI women ‘not taking anything for granted’

The preseason-favorite Vandal women are looking to be a force in the Big Sky with a team that features four returning starters, including preseason all-conference picks Gina Marxen and Beyonce Bea.

Add in a collection of talented newcomers, and it’s easy to see why coaches and media picked Idaho to win the conference.

But the Vandals know nothing is guaranteed after their 2019-20 season was cut short of a conference title when it was canceled during the Big Sky tournament in the spring.

“You can’t take anything granted. You have to play every game like it’s your last and give it your all,” said Bea, a sophomore guard/post who tallied 12.6 points per game in her debut season. “I think we are going into the season with that mindset and are all really excited to get back on the court.”

Both Vandal teams start Dec. 3, with the women playing host to Sacramento State at Memorial Gym and the men taking on the Hornets on the road.

“We are very excited to get things going, get our season back, and gain some sense of normalcy,” women’s coach Jon Newlee said. “When we are out on the floor, we don’t think about COVID, then you go out into the world you see all that is going on. All I know is our team is fired up, ready to go, and I can’t wait for the season to start.”

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

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