Idaho head coach Zac Claus speaks to his players on the court during the second half of a college basketball game, Thurs., Feb. 13, 2020, in Cheney, Wash.

MOSCOW, Idaho – Idaho men’s basketball team, facing an uncertain future after coach Zac Claus was fired following Monday’s final regular-season game against Montana, hopes to play freely on offense and step up its defense at the Big Sky Conference Tournament, athletics director Terry Gawlik said.

After meeting with players, Gawlik told interim coach Tim Marrion they expressed the desire to play that kind of freestyle offense.

Idaho (10-21), the No. 10 seed, opens the tournament Saturday against No. 9 Northern Arizona (9-22) at 4:30 p.m. Saturday in Boise.

Gawlik said she “thought long and hard” about allowing Claus to finish the year and coach in the conference tournament.

“I felt it was in the best interest of our program to do it exactly the way we did it,” she said of his dismissal. “This helps us end one era of a coach and begin another.”

Gawlik spent most of Wednesday’s news conference talking about the Vandals’ longer-term future and about the search for Claus’ successor.

She said she has no specific timetable for hiring a new coach. The university has hired a search firm, Bowlsby Sports Advisors, to recruit and screen candidates. Because Idaho does not have an athletics human relations department, Gawlik said it helps to have a search firm sift through the applicants.

While the majority of her remarks suggested Idaho would be searching for a male coach, following the news conference Gawlik said the search would not shy from breaking new ground and hiring a qualified woman to lead the men’s team.

“It is all open,” she said. “Come and apply.”

Gawlik said she met with basketball players and encouraged them to remain with the Vandals for a new regime, in short, asking them to trust her to serve their best interests. She took a similar approach when Idaho fired former football coach Paul Petrino following the 2021 season and hired Jason Eck, who took the Vandals to the first round of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.

“It is like what I did with football,” she said. “ ‘We would love for you to stay. We encourage you to stay.’ ‘You know what I am about.’ ”

In the early 1980s, Idaho enjoyed a couple of years with nationally ranked teams when Don Monson coached the Vandals.

The team quickly receded when he left for Oregon.

Idaho’s trajectory is in contrast to Gonzaga’s. The Bulldogs and Vandals were fairly comparable teams until GU reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament in 1999 and leveraged that into becoming a consistent national power.

Gawlik was asked whether Idaho would be prepared to put the resources into building on a winning program and driving it forward.

“Would I love to be a Gonzaga? Certainly,” she said.

She said a key difference between what the Zags accomplished more than two decades ago and today is “there wasn’t a transfer portal then.”

One of the key attributes of the next Vandals coach will be aptitude in negotiating the portal to attract players while keeping current players in Moscow and out of the portal, Gawlik said.

For the near term, Gawlik said, she hopes a new coach can get the Vandals into the top half of the Big Sky Conference.

Indulging in wishful thinking, she speculated about what it would be like to see both Idaho’s men’s and women’s teams winning the Big Sky Tournament and advancing to the NCAA Tournament.