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Rivalry showdown between Eastern Washington, Idaho is ‘never just another game’ for Zac Claus

UPDATED: Wed., Jan. 15, 2020

MOSCOW, Idaho – As Idaho sits on the verge of its annual renewal with Big Sky Conference rival Eastern Washington on Thursday, the Vandals’ season to date is reminiscent of the Grateful Dead’s “Long Strange Trip.”

The team, with a nucleus of young players, had plummeted from the heights of a 22-9 season two years before it was roughed up with a 5-27 record in 2018-19.

Idaho expected to reap the rewards of that rebuild this season as its young players gained hard-won experience. Instead, it found itself reconstructed anew last spring after coach Don Verlin was let go in the wake of several alleged NCAA violations, and seven team members opted to leave.

A pair of exhibition losses to Division II Central Washington and NAIA Lewis-Clark State College to open the season suggested a disaster was in the making.

Instead, the Vandals (5-10) have already matched last year’s win total. They are 1-3 in the early conference season, with a win over Portland State, but they played Idaho State, Weber State and Montana State within three points, and the first two of those were on the road.

Furthermore, although the Vandals have nearly a full bench now, injuries reduced them to seven healthy players for several games at the close of 2019.

The hand at the tiller that steered Idaho through those rough waters belongs to interim coach Zac Claus, who had been an assistant with the Vandals from 2015 until being named to head the team this year.

“I knew it was a good group,” Claus said of the team he watched come together last summer.

Greeting the newcomers were returning senior Trevon Allen, who has scored 999 career points heading into the EWU contest; juniors Scott Blakney, Chance Garvin and Marquell Fraser; and sophomores Khadim Samb and Jack Wilson, who became eligible this semester after transferring from Oregon State in 2018. They showed new teammates around campus and around Moscow.

“We had the good fortune to have really good returning guys coming back,” Claus said.

Incoming players such as graduate transfer Quinton Forrest, and junior college transfers Damen Thacker, Keyshaad Dixon, Ja’Vary Christmas and Babacar Thiombane were quick to get on board.

When Claus was named to succeed Verlin, Vandals coaches were frank with the players, telling them to talk with their families and decide if they wanted to remain at Idaho.

“If this was where they wanted to be, we were absolutely committed,” Claus said.

Claus has been part of college basketball programs as an assistant coach or operations director since 1998, at Nebraska Wesleyan, Austin College, Portland State, Sacramento State and Nevada before coming to Idaho.

“I had the chance to work with some terrific coaches,” Claus said.

From them, Claus learned an important lesson that has come in handy for Idaho: The season is a marathon.

Early losses didn’t spark dismay, and the Vandals improved from game to game. A November tournament at Arkansas State resulted in a 1-3 record, but, more important, glued a collection of players into a team.

“We were around one another, in the hotel, on the bus,” Claus said. “It was just us.”

A 76-70 overtime win against a physically tough Cal State University Bakersfield on Dec. 14 was another defining moment, Claus said. He found himself afterward with a team of “talented guys, who have toughness, who were mature guys.”

Against Eastern Washington, the Vandals will face a high-scoring offensive team.

“They are talented, unselfish,” Claus said. “They are an amazing passing team, the best we’ve seen all year, and it’s not even close. For a basketball junkie, they’re fun to watch.”

Claus doesn’t bring it up with his Vandals players, but after beginning his playing career with a year each at Creighton and Nebraska, he played his final two seasons at EWU, graduating in 1998. The place remains special to him, and he is still close to people at the university from his time there.

“It’s never just another game for me,” Claus said of playing the Eagles.

Also, he met his wife, Toni, at EWU.

“I tell my team I’m the happiest married guy they know,” he said.

With two decades in college basketball, Claus said he had a good idea of what he would be facing when he got his first head coaching opportunity with Idaho.

“(But) until you are in that specific role, it is hard to envision everything you take on,” he said. “There are little and big decisions every day. Multitasking becomes a valued skill, as well as strategic thinking, so that day-to-day events don’t obscure larger program goals.”

Claus said his guiding principle is: “Make each day a great one.”

For 16 players whose lives align as members of the Idaho team but differ in other respects, there is no one size that fits all.

“I have a terrific staff,” he said. “I entrust them to do things. I lean on them, and they do it all with a smile.”

Tim Murphy joined the Idaho staff in 2010. He works primarily with post players.

Claus said the dynamic is a little different since he became head coach. “But the relationship doesn’t change. … We are shoulder to shoulder.”

Idaho is forced to make tough financial decisions this year as it attempts to reduce a multimillion-dollar deficit across the university and comply with a Board of Education order to reduce spending by 2 percent.

“We try to keep that off their plate,” Claus said of his players. “We are up front with them about what we can and cannot do. We adjust to what is available to us.”

The budget situation has not eroded the basketball program.

“We have what we need to move forward,” Claus said. “We are still able to do what we need to be successful.”

He hopes Idaho’s future after this year includes him.

“I love it,” he said of his first taste of being a Division I head coach.

The long, strange trip has been everything he hoped it would be.

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