IDAHO MEN'S BASKETBALL: Vandals are battle-tested as they head to the Big Sky Conference tournament

Mar. 9—The Idaho men's basketball team's first-year coach Alex Pribble was handed a relatively clean slate once he arrived in Moscow. Instead of chasing short-term results by signing several graduate students through the transfer portal, he built a roster of mainly underclassmen for the long haul.

As the 2023-24 season progressed, the Vandals played like a youthful and inexperienced unit. But ninth-seeded Idaho's overall record of 11-20 is its best mark in five seasons and sets up a matchup with tenth-seeded Sacramento State in the opening round of the Big Sky tournament at 4:30 p.m. Pacific today at Idaho Central Arena in Boise.

"There's been a lot of adversity; there's been some ups and downs," Pribble said during a news conference on Monday. "But I think anybody that's followed us from the start understands what we're trying to do here. We brought in a young team, a young group, and we knew there were going to be some bumps in the road on this journey. ... And what that's led to is 11 wins, which is the most in five years — a win over Idaho State, the first time in five years. Now that third hurdle that we'd like to get over is winning a game in the Big Sky tournament."

Here's a look at how UI got here and what to expect from today's matchup:

How they got here

The highs for the Vandals were high, such as a 3-pointer from junior guard Quinn Denker to beat the buzzer for a 61-58 victory over Sacramento State on Dec. 28.

Earlier in the season, Idaho held Utah Tech scoreless in the final minute to pick up a 63-62 win on Dec. 9.

The lows for Idaho, however, packed a heavier punch as they've dealt with inconsistent showings and injuries.

The Vandals mostly struggled on offense, averaging 67.9 points per game, which ranks ninth in the Big Sky.

Idaho scored its highest point total in more than two months in an 86-76 victory over Northern Arizona on Feb. 24. It followed up by losing three straight games to close the season, averaging 54 points per outing.

"We were sitting in this building after the big Northern Arizona win talking about how resilient our group is, especially when their backs are against the wall," Pribble said. "And some of those wins earlier in the season took a bit of an emotional toll on us, and so these last three games we just didn't start well and we didn't have the same edge we had earlier in the season."

Part of the Vandals' inconsistencies on offense can be traced to the number of lineup changes they've made during the season.

Idaho changed its starting lineup 12 times this year due to injuries.

"One of the challenges for us has been the consistency of rotation," Pribble said. "We talk about some of the adversity that we've been hit with, and injuries are a part of it. Injuries are sometimes out of your control, and it's kind of a double-edged sword. As we've gotten healthier, it's changed up our rotations. ... So that's one of the things that's happened: we have been playing different lineups, starting different lineups, and not quite getting off to a great rhythm early in these games."

Beat them before

Idaho has a pretty favorable opening-round opponent in Sacramento State.

The Vandals were 5-13 in conference play, and two of those wins came against the Hornets.

In those two contests, Idaho held Sacramento State to fewer than 60 points both games.

"Traditionally, their bigs haven't shot the ball well," Pribble said. "Which has allowed us to lock in on our ball screen coverages, take away their guard penetration, and take away the 3-point shooting from Austin Patterson and Zee Hamada, two really good 3-point shooters."

Won't be a walk in the park

It's hard to beat the same team three times, and it'll be even more difficult as the Hornets seem to be getting hot at the right time.

Sacramento State won two of its final three games, with the loss being a 91-88 decision to No. 1 Eastern Washington on Monday.

The Hornets' bigs, Akol Mawein and Jacob Holt, are "shooting the ball a lot better now," according to Pribble, and "that's a big reason why they gave Eastern Washington such a tough run on Monday."

Sacramento State has been on fire from behind the 3-point line, nailing a season-high 18 against the Eagles.

"You have to take away their rhythm on the offensive end when these guys are playing free," Pribble said. "Austin Patterson is as good of a shooter as anybody in the conference. ... And then they do a really good job of pounding the ball inside, meaning it's not just always one-on-one post touches. But they're physical inside. They're physical in what we call the trenches; they're physical around the rim, where you really have to dig in and be ready to battle."

Pixley may be contacted at (208) 848-2290, or on Twitter @TreebTalks