University of Idaho head men's basketball coach Don Verlin announced his team's 2012-13 schedule on Tuesday, and he wasn't shy about the quality of the slate.
"It's the best schedule we've had since I've been here, bar none," the fifth-year coach said. "We've got some great preseason games, and it really starts with our exhibition games. We have some great early-season home games, and then we go to Washington State, New Mexico and UTEP – those are three very, very good teams to play on the road."
Idaho's non-conference home schedule includes Montana, Wright State, Green Bay, UC Davis and Walla Walla University, in addition to home exhibition games against Seattle Pacific and Central Washington.
Verlin said the road schedule is intended to challenge, and he expects it to do just that. The team's first away game is at New Mexico on Friday, Nov. 23, and will be followed immediately by a trip across the border to face Washington State on Wednesday, Nov. 28, in the oldest continuous rivalry west of the Mississippi River. The Vandals also face Eastern Washington (Dec. 6) and UTEP (Dec. 8) away from home.
"It's a great non-conference schedule, and then you throw in the neutral-site Boise State game at CenturyLink Arena, and it's by far the best preseason we've had," Verlin said.
Idaho's second-oldest active rivalry, the Vandals and Broncos have faced off at least once every season since 1971. This year's matchup will be played at downtown Boise's CenturyLink Arena on Dec. 20, with a tip time still to be determined.
"Tickets are going to be at a premium because there are only 6,000 seats and I know that's going to be just a great atmosphere downtown," Verlin said. "I know our guys are looking forward to it and the fans should be, too."
With a strong core of eight returners this season, headlined by 2012 Second-Team All-Western Athletic Conference senior center Kyle Barone and junior guard Stephen Madison, the league's most improved scorer last year, Verlin said he has high expectations for the group and he wants this schedule to challenge them accordingly.
"With eight returners, we said, ‘Let's put together the best schedule that we possibly can,'" Verlin said. "That's why we're playing at places like The Pit at New Mexico, because that prepares us for the better teams in our league. These are some very good opponents."
Verlin said the WAC season may be one of the more competitive years in recent history, with a blend of traditional teams and the addition of five new groups in Seattle U, Denver, UTSA, UT Arlington and Texas State.
"Utah State and New Mexico State are good every year, but Louisiana Tech went to the conference tournament final last year and has everyone back and I expect them to be right at the top of the league," Verlin said. "San Jose State is always a tough team to play."
Regarding the newcomers, Idaho is familiar with Seattle U, which has played home-and-home with the Vandals for the last three seasons. The Vandals played Denver twice in the 1960s and UTA twice in the 1987-88 season, but has never played Texas State or UTSA.
"We know about Seattle U because we've been playing them, but you add Denver, Texas State, UTSA and UT Arlington and they're all good basketball teams," Verlin said. "I'm going to learn as we go, but I know UT Arlington and UTSA have both been in the NCAA Tournament recently and Denver plays the Princeton style under Joe Scott and they went in and won at Utah State last year, which people just don't do."
Idaho opens WAC play with a road game at Seattle U on Dec. 29, followed by trips to San Jose State and Utah State. The team's WAC home opening weekend will be Thursday and Saturday, Jan. 10-12, when the Vandals host Denver and New Mexico State at the Cowan Spectrum.
Ultimately, Verlin said he hopes that the schedule will help prepare for what should be a strong conference slate, and to give the team a strong case for a fourth postseason appearance in five years since he took over the program.
"If it's not the best, I think our schedule will be at least second-best in RPI in the league this year," Verlin said. "Not only does it get your team ready for those tough games late in the year, but if you're able to pull off a really good season, you have a résumé to maybe get an at-large bid."