Idaho center Kyle Barone had a simple, yet lofty, aim throughout his senior season.
"My ultimate goal was to come out and be the best player on the floor," he said.
The senior from Garden Grove, Calif., succeeded for most games in the WAC. Despite the Vandals' sixth-place finish, Barone's consistent excellence was rewarded this week when he was voted WAC Player of the Year by the league's coaches.
Barone averaged 17.1 points, tied for second in the WAC, and a league-high 9.9 rebounds per game. He had 16 double-doubles.
"He's been here every summer. He's put time in his game. He's just gotten better and better and better," coach Don Verlin said.
Barone, who graduated in December, is the school's all-time leader in games played at 125 and ranks fourth in points scored. He is second in rebounds.
Now Barone has another goal - leading the Vandals to an improbable WAC Tournament title and NCAA berth. Idaho (12-17) opens play Thursday against No. 3 New Mexico State (21-10) at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas. Tip-off is at 1 p.m. Mountain.
"We have three games. We have a chance to win every single one of them," Barone said. "We're just coming in with one idea, one mindset. We feel we can pull it off."
Said Verlin: "For us, it's a three-game season and anything can happen."
Those positive feelings stem from Idaho's solid finish to the regular season. The Vandals won three of their last four games, including two in a row.
Improved play from senior point guard Mike McChristian - 17.3 points per game in his last three games; 8.5 points per game on the season - and Barone's consistent efforts have helped, too.
"We've been playing very well offensively. That's what we're going to have to do in the tournament," Verlin said.
The Vandals are searching for a few extra points against New Mexico State. The Aggies won both meetings by a combined three points.
"This team never got its confidence," Verlin said, pointing a difficult nonconference schedule with games against Wright State, Montana, New Mexico, UTEP, Washington State and Boise State that all resulted in losses. "Hopefully, we've gotten over that."
Let it fly. That's been Idaho's offensive motto this season.
The Vandals set a school record for 3-pointers in a season with 237 (so far). Freshman Christina Salvatore broke the school record for 3-pointers made with 84. Four players rank in the top 25 in on the school's career list for 3-pointers made, including sophomore Stacey Barr, who has 107 and ranks eighth.
Idaho has shot 728 3-pointers this year - 40.6 percent of the team's field goal attempts are from long range.
The Vandals need those 3s to go in, however.
Idaho is 0-10 when shooting worse than 35 percent from the field this season. The Vandals are 14-5 when shooting 35 percent or better.
The third-seeded Vandals (14-15) meet No. 6 San Jose State (11-18) in Wednesday's quarterfinals. Tip-off is at 1 p.m. Mountain.
The Vandals reached the semifinals in last year's event, matching their best finish in the WAC tournament. Idaho also reached the semifinals in 2010.
Brian Murphy: 377-6444