MOSCOW, Idaho – In any other year, the first week of basketball practice would involve knocking off rust that playing pickup games won’t scour away and working with coaches to intentionally shape a team and identify and focus on goals for the season ahead.
This isn’t that.
The University of Idaho men’s and women’s teams are practicing for the first time since their seasons were abruptly canceled by the coronavirus pandemic during the Big Sky Conference Tournament last March.
A high point for Vandals women’s sophomore center Beyonce Bea and coach Jon Newlee is simply getting on a court without wearing a mask.
“Practice is starting to feel more normal,” Bea said.
The Vandals men are also appreciative of little things, like practicing as an entire team and not in small groups to limit potential virus exposure.
“I had a big smile on my face,” coach Zac Claus said after the first full workout. “I told them it was going to be a good day. We were all together.”
Within the customary competitive framework that characterizes a normal season, Claus is looking to replace the scoring and leadership of graduated Trevon Allen while goading an 8-24 team that lost eight games by five points or fewer into closing out such close contests.
Newlee, by contrast, is trying to put behind what could have been. The Vandals women were set to play Montana State for the Big Sky championship when the season was canceled.
“I flashed on it still this summer,” Newlee said. “What could have been.
“We were certain we were going to win that game and go to the NCAA Tournament. There was not a doubt in anybody’s mind. But last year is over.
“Now we’ve got another chance. Let’s finish the job.”
Both Idaho coaches point to an ability to adjust on the fly as crucial to having a successful season. Newlee points to current NCAA requirements that if a player tests positive for the virus an entire team goes into quarantine for 14 days.
“That keeps me up nights,” he said.
Claus said he keeps asking himself, “What if something happens to two, three or four guys? How are we going to adjust? We have to keep things simple in that regard.”
Newlee expects to have all the concepts of Idaho’s offense in place and to go forward with them even if the Vandals lose key players, have games canceled or have the season suspended and started anew.
Things like having to play the entire season in ancient Memorial Gym because the Kibbie Dome will be set up for football in January, and perhaps doing more busing and less flying to away games to reduce virus exposure are peripheral issues, both coaches say.
“We’re so happy to have an opportunity to play, you could tell us we were going to play outside and we would sign up for it,” Claus said.
The Idaho women return leading scorer and All-Big Sky player Gina Marxen, who averaged 13.3 points and 4.4 assists and who has 154 career 3-pointers. Leading rebounder Natalie Klinker (7.5 per game) is also back, and Bea is building off a season in which she averaged 12.6 points and 5.8 rebounds.
A pair of transfers, Rylee Alexander, 5-10, from Pratt Community College in Kansas, and Gabi Harrington, 5-9, a graduate transfer from Big Sky rival Montana will add depth and defensive toughness to the Vandals, according to Newlee, and he raves about the scoring potential of freshmen Paris Atchley and Sydney Gandy.
The Idaho men expect to lean on five seniors: Scott Blakney averaged 8.2 points and 4.4 rebounds last year; Damen Thacker contributed 6 points, 2.5 rebounds and 1.2 assists; Ja’Vary Christmas put up 3.8 points and 1.5 rebounds per game; Babacar Thiombane helped Idaho defend the lane ; and Chance Garvin contributed 4.4 points, 2.3 rebounds and 1.3 assists per game.
“He’s our rock,” Claus says. Overall, he expects this edition of the Vandals to have more scoring potential than last year’s team. That and an ability to get late defensive stops “and some luck” could propel Idaho to wins in close games this season.
Blakney said in Claus’ second season, Idaho’s players are getting more accustomed to playing with the unrelenting intensity Claus expects. For his part, Claus says his seniors are transmitting that message to their teammates. Both Blakney and Thacker believe replacing Allen’s leadership will be a collective endeavor. “The leaders will emerge from the shadows,” says Thacker.
However this unusual season concludes, anyone who plays in it will have a lifetime of stories. Marxen agrees.
“We’re slowly getting used to it,” she says as the Vandals men and women get under way. “We’ll never hear the end of it.”
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