Hard to believe, but Idaho Vandals hoops will kick off in just over two months. We sat down with men’s coach Don Verlin to talk summer workouts, scheduling and his goals for the season ahead.
Vandal Nation: Talk about the Vandals’ progress over the summer.
Don Verlin: I evaluate the summer based on how we did in the weight room and how we did in the classroom.
Our guys did a great job in the classroom, they passed all of their summer classes and are moving toward graduation. We have no eligibility problems and everyone made academic progress.
Now, we also made tremendous strides in the weight room, Nate Barry, our new weight coach, he did most of the work. I thought one of our weaknesses last year was our physical strength and quickness, and I thought we improved tremendously there. That’s why we like bringing in new guys over the summer, like Joe Kammerer and Shawn Henderson, so they can learn how to lift weights properly, and not get hurt.
Our guys and Washington State had open gym together as well, just 5-on-5 pickup games. That gave the guys a chance to play together and play hard against good competition.
Contrary to what one might expect from a pair of hotshot point guards, Steffan Johnson and Mac Hopson seem to have a real good rapport on the court. Was that something you worked on building during Steffan’s redshirt year?
No, that was more up to them – they both have great mutual respect for each other’s game. They know that for our team to reach our potential, there’s going to be, a lot of times, I think, they have to be on the court together. They will be on the floor a lot together this year. As a coach, it’s a great luxury to have them. Both of them can play the point, both can play the off, either way. I’m going to rely heavily on Mac, Steffan and all our seniors to be team leaders this year. How well we do is going to depend on how much responsibility they take for the team.
What’s the practice timeline look like?
What we can do, starting right now, is have 8 hours a week of practice and workouts. That includes two hours of basketball instruction, and the other six hours can be in the weight room and doing aerobic conditioning. Then, of course, they can play 5-on-5 pickup games in open gym time. On Friday, Oct. 16 at 5 p.m., that’s when we can officially start our team practices and have 20 hours a week to get ready for the season.
You’ve had a tentative schedule out for a month or so, but when will it be finalized?
Our schedule will be out Friday. We’re just finalizing some game times, more or less. The new WAC TV contract means that we may be swapping some times around – some Wednesday night games, probably. There’s still one game slot open, because Hawaii is an exempt game, but we may or may not play it. We want to find an opponent and a time that makes sense for it, and we haven’t been able to do that yet. If we can, we will.
There was talk of a neutral site game at Boise. Is that going to happen?
Nothing came of the Boise talk, I’m afraid. We could not get an opponent that was suitable. We’d like to play a game in Boise over a break when the students aren’t here and we’ll look at that for next year. Let me be clear — I don’t have any interest in playing a game out of the region when students are here. Our fan base and our excitement is generated by our students.
You’ve got home-and-home series lined up with Seattle and Portland. Is getting in those markets a focus for your scheduling?
Those are great games for us. I want to play regional games, and we have a two-year deal with Seattle, and we’ll see Portland back here next year. We signed for a couple home-and-home series with the Pilots – it started last year, we play twice this year and then they come back here next year. To play regional games is good for us, it’s good for recruiting and it’s good for rivalries. Portland’s obviously a very good West Coast Conference squad, Seattle is just moving back up to Division I so it’ll be a good test for them. They’re both big basketball markets and if we can showcase our brand of basketball there, that helps us as a team and as a university.
Steffan and Corey Stern and Shawn get to play games in their neighborhood, Mac and Joe get to play in their regions. It’s important for them and for their families. Plus, they’re not so far away that our fans can’t go watch. We have a huge Vandal fanbase in Seattle and I’m sure there’s quite a few in Portland as well.
Talk about the newcomers – you’ve got a bunch!
We’re all excited. I like this team, I like how this team is fitting together. The talent level has definitely increased all around. They picked us last in the league last year, I don’t think they’ll pick us last this year.
Shawn Henderson comes to us from North Idaho College, where he had a very good year. He’s a 6-3, athletic wing who can play multiple guard positions. I’m excited about his athleticism and the depth he brings to our guard line.
Jeff Ledbetter, he’s a 6-4 shooter with a great feel for the game, from a very good junior college program where he was very well coached. He gives us another legitimate three-point threat to help open up the inside game.
Big Joe (Kammerer) gives us the depth we really needed in the front line. One of our problems last year was when Marvin got in foul trouble, I had to sub in an undersized guy, and we won’t have that problem this year. I’m excited to have Joe — his frame allows him to play at our level, and we’ll see how he develops his game.
Corey Stern is a 6-7 multiple position guy who can play in either of the forward spots. He was one of the guys that wasn’t here this summer but I liked what I’ve seen of him recruiting this spring. He’s a very solid freshman.
We added Landon Tatum, a point guard from South Plains College, and if I had to describe his game, I’d say he’s a winner. At every level he’s had success — a national championship when he was a freshman and they went 27-4 when he was a sophomore. He’ll give us depth at the point guard spot.
Then there’s Kyle Barone, a lot of guys probably forgot about him but he did a great job academically, and is another 6-10 long, skilled athletic guy who can develop into a very, very good player. He did a great job in the weight room and picked up 16 or 17 pounds over the summer.
Luiz Toledo spent the summer playing in the World University Games down in Brazil where he played well. He’s 6-7, 230, has a nice game and was practicing with us all last year. Again, he’ll add some depth inside.
It really looks like the big holes from last year are filled?
That’s what you try to do in recruiting <laughs> We’re not going to keep it a secret, we have to rebound the ball better. We were last in the league in rebounding and we can’t do that again, no if ands or buts about it. It has to be a team effort, from everyone keying on the ball. How much better we can rebound the ball is going to be a big part of how much better we can be as a team. Secondly, we have to be better defensively. From points allowed to field goal percentage, we have to be at the top of the league if we want to win this league. Those are the challenges I’m giving the team this year.
How key is the added depth?
It’s great. We can play more like I want to play. We’re going to turn it up a notch all over the court — defensively and in transition. I felt at times last year we wore down and we couldn’t play as fast as we wanted to. The way I wanted to play would have a lot more pressure defense and more transition. The intra-squad competition will make us be better because we have competition for positions, guys raising their levels because they want the playing time and the starting slots.
Talk about the basketball team camp you ran over the summer.
The summer team camp is really important, and we need to keep building it, bringing in more teams and more kids. It helps two ways — one way, is we get about 300 kids on campus to see the University of Idaho. There might only be one or two basketball players who can play here, but there’s 300 students who can possibly come here. I think that helps us as a school, from an exposure standpoint. Number two, it gives us a chance to build relationships with high school coaches and players in the local area. Some years they have players that can play at our level, some years they don’t, but we’re building the relationships with them. That’s extremely important.
We just saw yesterday that Nevada lost two recruits for the fall semester, at least, because of academics. As a coach, what’s it mean not to have that hanging over you?
Academics are huge. The percentage of kids who go on and play professionally after college is small. All six seniors in our program are in line to graduate and I expect every one of them to graduate by the end of next summer. Chevy (Augusto) is coming back as a coach, he’s going to finish his degree. My academic guys have done a great job of keeping our guys eligible and getting them in position to graduate. Mac will graduate at Christmas. Steffan has 17 units left to graduate. Marvin Jefferson has 24. All my guys will get their degrees. That’s what it’s all about — let’s give you an avenue for when basketball’s over, you can go and make a living for yourself one way or another.
What’s your take on the WAC?
The league’s as good as it’s been in the five years I’ve been in it — maybe the best it’s ever been. Top to bottom, there’s quality. It’s going to be a challenge but it’s one that our whole organization is looking forward to. We’ll be ready.