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Meet the Vandals: The Guards

17 Nov

With this post, we begin a series breaking down the Vandals’ 2009-10 roster by position, starting with the guards.

The backbone of Idaho’s offense last year was its backcourt, led by First Team All-WAC point guard Mac Hopson. Things should be no different this year, as with a relatively undersized frontcourt, coach Don Verlin will be relying on big production from his guards to keep the Vandals’ opponents on their heels. Fortunately, this year he has the talent and the depth on the bench to pull it off.

  • #1 Mac Hopson

A 6-2 senior from Portland, Ore., Hopson is the Vandals’ undisputed leader. Son of Idaho great Phil Hopson, who led the Silver and Gold on an unlikely charge to the 1982 Sweet 16, Mac transferred from Washington State in order to lead a rebuilding project at his father’s alma mater. Idaho couldn’t have asked for more. The younger Hopson was one of just four players nationally to break the 15/5/5 barrier, averaging 16.4 points, 5.0 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game, and became the first Vandal ever named First Team All-WAC.

Back for his senior season with Idaho and surrounded by a stronger supporting cast, Mac’s numbers could explode. As the Vandals’ only instant threat last year, he was often double-teamed and mobbed by opposing defenses. This season, backed up by shooters like Steffan Johnson and Shawn Henderson, focusing on Hopson will be a very bad idea. More open looks and more guys to dish to? Yeah, that’s all a guy like Mac could ask for.

  • #2 Jeff Ledbetter

A 6-3 junior from Brea, Calif., Ledbetter was brought in to give Idaho another potent threat from beyond the arc. Playing for Irvine Valley College, he shot 39 percent from downtown and averaged nearly 14 points per game. But Ledbetter is more than a pure shooter — he’s also proven to be an excellent ball-handler.

He exploded in the season-opener, contributing 16 points in just 14 minutes in Idaho’s road defeat of Utah. While he’s definitely going to play a specialist role in reserve this season, his minutes will be critical and all his shots will be big ones.

  • #3 Shawn Henderson

Perhaps the revelation of the Vandals’ exhibition game, the 6-3 junior from Renton, Wash. exploded onto the court. Last year at North Idaho College, Henderson led the Cardinals to a Scenic West Athletic Conference title with 17.8 points, 5.0 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game.

In his first outing as a Vandal, Henderson hit his first five shots and ended 6-7 for the night with 12 points, four rebounds and two assists in only 15 minutes. He’s got a nifty double-clutch floater that’s almost impossible to defend, and he’s unafraid to drive strong. Idaho may have found one of its primary go-to guys off the bench.

  • #5 Steffan Johnson

The key to Idaho’s 2009-10 season, and that’s no exaggeration. The 6-1 senior from Kent, Wash. lit up the Big West two years ago, dropping 14.5 points and dishing up 4.9 assists per game for the Pacific Tigers. The First Team All-Big West point guard headed north last season to join the Idaho rebuilding project. He spent his redshirt season learning Verlin’s system and building a close rapport with Hopson and his teammates.

As the Vandals’ starting shooting guard, Johnson not only gives Idaho a serious second scoring threat in the backcourt, he’ll take some of the defensive pressure off Hopson too. Leave him open and he’ll make you pay — Johnson shot a lights-out .410 from beyond the arc. Too, he has the ball-handling abilities to spell Hopson as point guard, giving the Vandals’ star some much-needed bench time. If Stef and Mac play up to their potential, there won’t be a better backcourt in the WAC this year.

  • #10 Landon Tatum

A skilled pure point guard, the 5-11 junior from San Antonio will redshirt the year, given how deep the Vandals are at the point this season. Vandal fans should look forward to seeing Tatum on the court next season, however, because he was a star for South Plains College.

Playing for the Texans, Tatum started all 33 games, averaged 7.1 points and 5.8 assists per game, led the team in minutes and was named a national juco All-Star enroute to the Regional title game. As a freshman, Tatum won the NJCAA National Championship. With that kind of talent waiting in the wings, Idaho’s backcourt future looks bright.

  • #20 Marcus Lawrence

Idaho’s backup point guard, Lawrence comes into this season with something to prove. The 5-11 junior from Las Vegas played two years at UNLV, posting a 3.5 assist-to-turnover ratio and finished third on the team with 53 assists despite limited minutes off the bench.

Lawrence redshirted last year, so he’ll have a year under Don Verlin’s system to prepare him for the task ahead. In 13 minutes of action at Utah, he scored 7 points and dished up two assists without turning over the rock once. Expect Lawrence to be the Vandals’ primary option off the bench to give Hopson a rest.

  • #23 Justin Stewart

A 6-1 freshman from Spokane, Stewart walked on during open tryouts this year and impressed the coaching staff enough to land a roster spot. A 56 percent shooter, he helped Ferris High to an undefeated 29-0 Washington State 4A Championship season in 2008.

Stewart will likely redshirt this season to adjust to Division I ball and learn Verlin’s system, while playing a key role on the Vandals’ scout team. Playing as a walk-on is a somewhat thankless task that takes a huge commitment of time and energy. We congratulate Justin on making the team, and we look forward to seeing him out on the court down the road.

  • #32 Kashif Watson

The Vandals’ returning glue, Watson, a 6-4 senior from Las Vegas, will play a key starting role for Idaho this season. He was quiet, generally unspectacular and absolutely reliable last year. Averaging 10.3 points and 3.5 rebounds, ‘Shif could be counted on every night to deliver points when the Vandals needed them. Not an outside shooter, Watson’s game is the quick drive and layup or the stop-and-pop midrange jumper, with which he can be deadly.

A transfer from Irvine Valley College, Watson was a teammate of Ledbetter, and helped lead the Lasers to a program-record 27 wins and a trip to the Southern California Regional Finals. This season, he should be getting more open looks and a few more minutes to rest his legs — he averaged 32 minutes per game last year, second only to Hopson in the Vandals’ “ironman” category.

Vandal Hoops: Predicting the Starters

9 Nov

The exhibitions are done, so now for the prognostications. Who’s going to start, who’s going to play and who’s going to redshirt for Idaho basketball? It’s no easy task this year, with the Vandals boasting a ridiculous amount of depth. But we’re going to try.

Here’s our guesses, based on coach Don Verlin’s statement that he’ll play no more than an 11-man rotation. A caveat: these are predicted Opening Day starters vs. Utah. Depending on how fast the incoming talent gets adjusted to Division I basketball, it wouldn’t be a surprise at all to see some of them work into the starting lineup later in the season.


  1. PG Mac Hopson, Sr. — A no-brainer here, Idaho’s returning star will run the show again.
  2. SG Steffan Johnson, Sr. —  Another no-brainer, Stef is an instant double-digit scoring threat.
  3. SG Kashif Watson, Sr. — Last year’s quiet glue guy, no reason to think he won’t be again.
  4. PF Brandon Wiley, Sr. — Led Idaho in rebounding in 08-09, and the Vandals need his boards.
  5. C Marvin Jefferson, Sr. — He’ll get competition from Barone, but Big Jeff gets the nod for now.


  1. PG Marcus Lawrence, Jr. — Stef can run the show as PG too, but Marcus will be a solid backup.
  2. SG Shawn Henderson, Jr. —  The revelation of the exhibition, he’ll be Idaho’s go-to sixth man.
  3. SF Luciano de Souza, Sr. — Big hair, big shots. Need a three-ball in the clutch? Give it to Luci.
  4. PF Luiz Toledo, So. — Will rotate with Wiley, and may just about split the 4-spot minutes.
  5. PF Corey Stern, Fr. — Showed great poise and skill for a freshman, should see plenty of action.
  6. C Kyle Barone, Fr. — May be the much-needed answer to the Vandals’ rebounding woes.

Deep bench:

  1. SF Travis Blackstock, Sr. — T-Black is back, walking on for the love of the game. Gotta love it.


  1. PG Landon Tatum, Jr. — This guy’s too talented to sit, but we’ve run out of places to put him.
  2. SG Jeff Ledbetter, Jr. —  Solid 3-point production and ball-handling, but no room at the inn.
  3. SG Justin Stewart, Fr. — The walk-on from Spokane will get a year to learn Division I.
  4. C Joe Kammerer, Fr. — Big Jeff graduates next year, makes sense to save Big Joe’s eligibility.

WAC preview: #1 Idaho will ride ‘unstoppable’ backcourt to victory

2 Nov

Team: #1 Idaho

Coach: Don Verlin, second season, (17-16)

Last year’s record: 17-16 (9-7 WAC, T-3rd)

Returning starters: Four (G Mac Hopson, F Brandon Wiley, G Kashif Watson, C Marvin Jefferson)

Key losses: F Trevor Morris, G Terrence Simmons

Key newcomers: G Steffan Johnson, F Corey Stern, F Luiz Toledo

Why they’re here: Last year’s Vandals overachieved beyond Moscow’s wildest dreams. First-year coach Don Verlin led Idaho to its first winning season in a decade and a sweep of hated in-state rival Boise State, despite having a puddle-deep bench and only one true post threat. While he didn’t win the WAC’s Coach of the Year trophy, everyone in the conference knows he was the most deserving candidate.

This season, with four starters and six of the top seven scorers back and a bench stocked with talent new and old, Merlin Verlin’s Vandals are ready to leap from contender to champion. With his squad’s newfound depth, Verlin has promised a fast-paced, run-and-gun look on offense reminiscent of New Mexico State. Point guard Mac Hopson will pair off in the backcourt with First Team All-Big West guard Steffan Johnson, who gives the Vandals an instant double-digit scoring threat.

Every significant weakness the Vandals had last year — no depth, no size, no rebounding — should be remedied this season. The addition of Luiz Toledo and Kyle Barone in the post will provide solid hands and scoring threats to a spot that had been Marvin Jefferson’s one-man show last year. Marcus Lawrence, Jeff Ledbetter and Shawn Henderson can keep things moving when the stars are getting rest. Finally, the combination of Mac and Steffan in the backcourt gives Idaho, to quote Johnson, an “unstoppable force” in the WAC. Anything less than a trip to the WAC Tournament’s championship game would be a disappointment.

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WAC preview: #2 Utah State a fearsome threat, as always

29 Oct

We continue our WAC men’s basketball preview with a look at #2 Utah State.

Team: #2 Utah State

Coach: Stew Morrill, 12th season, 267-91

Last year’s record: 30-5 (14-2 WAC, 1st)

Returning starters: Four (G Tyler Newbold, G Jared Quayle, F Tai Wesley, F Pooh Williams)

Key losses: F Gary Wilkinson, G Stavon Williams

Key newcomers: F Nate Bendall

Why they’re here: They’re the Utah State Aggies. Stew Morrill is their fiery coach. The Spectrum is their home court. The Refraction is their irreverent voice. No matter who they lose, Utah State always finds a way to win a ridiculous number of games and contend for the conference crown. Betting against them is a sucker’s game and we’re seldom, if ever, willing to play it.

That said, if there’s a year that the WAC’s undisputed juggernaut might — just might — be vanquished, this is it. Star forward and conference Player of the Year Gary Wilkinson has been lost to graduation and there’s no clear replacement for his production. He not only leaves a gaping hole in the Aggies’ frontcourt, his absence means opposing defenses won’t have to spend the whole game keying off him. Juco standout Nate Bendall will be stepping into Wilkinson’s role, but his are mighty big shoes to fill. Bendall will have to prove on the court that he’s a worthy successor.

The rest of the Aggie starting lineup, though, is made up of unquestionable talent. Jared Quayle is one of the conference’s best point guards, Tyler Newbold is Mr. Clutch and Tai Wesley is a consistent paint performer. Bench help will come from a more experienced Jaxon Myaer, who, after Stavon Williams’ departure, is the Aggies’ leading returning reserve. The bottom line for Logan’s Heroes — a track record of success that can’t be ignored. The coaching is too good, the players too talented, the Spectrum too intimidating.

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WAC preview: #3 New Mexico State’s season hinges on academics

27 Oct

We continue our WAC men’s basketball preview with a look at #3 New Mexico State.

Team: New Mexico State

Coach: Marvin Menzies, 3rd season (38-29)

Last year’s record: 17-15 (9-7 WAC, T-3rd)

Returning starters: 5 (G Jahmar Young, G Jonathan Gibson, G Hernst Laroche, F Wendell McKines, C Hamidu Rahman)

Key losses: None

Key newcomers: F Bandja Sy, F/C B.J. West

Why they’re here: Five returning starters, including the WAC’s leading scorer, says New Mexico State’s Aggies will probably finish no worse than they did this year — and will be even better as a team. So too, though, will the rest of the WAC, and this team needs to prove it can play defense before we fully buy into the Newmags making another run to the NCAA Tournament. Academic woes are also lurking in the background.

Jahmar Young and Jonathan Gibson together form an explosive backcourt combo, and last year’s unexpected emergence of freshman Hernst Laroche as a top ball-handling point guard gave the young Aggies a much-needed floor leader. In the paint, Wendell McKines averaged a double-double every night — the only player in the WAC to do so. Together with Troy Gillenwater and Hamidu Rahman, New Mexico State fields the conference’s deepest frontcourt.

But the Aggies’ powerful offense had to fire on all cylinders every night last year, because the team was incapable of making stops. NMSU had the conference’s worst defense, giving up 74.4 points per game. Some of that can be attributed to the Aggies’ youth and inexperience, but unless the listless defensive effort improves dramatically, Marvin Menzies’ team will have a tough time stopping the conference’s upper-tier foes.

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Vandal against Vandal on the hardwood

21 Oct

Hoops season is just around the corner, and Don Verlin’s Idaho Vandals are getting ready to make a run for the Western Athletic Conference championship.

Argonaut photographer Nick Groff poked his head in during one of Verlin’s practices earlier this week, and caught the Vandals in scrimmage action in Memorial Gymnasium. It’s just a taste of the basketball action to come!

WAC preview: #4 Nevada talented at the top, weak off the bench

20 Oct

We continue our WAC men’s basketball preview with a look at #4 Nevada.

Team: #4 Nevada

Coach: David Carter, first season

Last year’s record: 21-13 (11-5 WAC, 2nd)

Returning starters: three (F Luke Babbitt, F Dario Hunt, G Armon Johnson)

Key losses: F Malik Cooke, G Lyndale Burleson

Key newcomers: G Patrick Nyeko, F Marko Cukic

Why they’re here: A new coach with a thin bench and a star or two. That might have brought Idaho out of the WAC’s basement last year, but it wasn’t enough to get the Vandals into the conference’s top tier. Now, the Wolf Pack are facing a similar situation — only this year, the WAC is even deeper and more talented. Nevada has a tough road ahead if it wants to reach the conference title game for a second straight year.

Yes, Luke Babbitt and Armon Johnson are absolute studs, but below those two the talent dropoff is fairly steep. Only five Nevada players averaged more than 4 points per game last year, and one of them — third-leading scorer Malik Cooke — transferred out. Further compounding first-year coach David Carter’s woes, two of the Pack’s blue-chip high school recruits didn’t make the grade academically. Carter isn’t new to the program, but the leap from assistant to head honcho is not an easy task. He could use a little of Merlin Verlin’s magic this season.

So Carter’s cobbled-together squad (he has nine scholarship players available) will be depending heavily on unproven freshmen like Patrick Nyeko to provide relief, and he’ll need returning backups Joey Shaw and Brandon Fields to make a big step up. With all of the other top WAC teams fairly bursting with more proven college-level scoring talent in their rotations, the Wolf Pack could simply be run ragged by the time the conference stretch drive rolls around. But don’t count Nevada out — the conference tournament is on their home floor for the final time, and the Pack would dearly like to end its run in Reno as champions.

Why they could finish higher: At the top of the WAC, teams are so tightly bunched that it won’t take much to swing the Wolf Pack into the conference lead. The tag-team of Babbitt and Johnson are so talented, they’ll be able to take the team on their backs and carry it to victory solo against the WAC’s lesser squads. As long as Carter can get solid minutes out of his role players, slow the game down and keep his stars out of foul trouble, Nevada will be able to battle hard and get itself into the mix for a favorable seed come tournament time.

Why they could finish lower: As noted above, just five players contributed the lion’s share of Nevada’s points last year — there’s not much production waiting in reserve in Reno. The Wolf Pack need both Babbitt and Johnson to have near-perfect nights every night. If either one of them has an off game, it’s going to be tough for Nevada to keep lighting up the scoreboard because the poor shooting from Shaw and Fields (.394 and .361, respectively) won’t get it done. If the Pack’s backups don’t make a significant improvement, opposing WAC coaches will be drawing up their gameplans to run Nevada into the ground.

Most Valuable Player: Luke Babbitt (16.9 ppg, 7.4 rpg, .456 fgp) — Regardless of how well the Wolf Pack do, Babbitt might get WAC Player of the Year anyway. He’s that good. Blessed with imposing size, a dancer’s footwork in the paint and the ability to nail outside shots at will, Babbitt is the most difficult player to guard in the WAC. All of that, and he was only a freshman. With a full year of seasoning, a summer of conditioning and pro scouts looking on, Babbitt’s already-splendid stat line should only get better.

Most Important Player: Armon Johnson (15.5 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 4.2 apg) — The glue that holds the Wolf Pack together, Johnson is one of the WAC’s top point guards, second only to Mac Hopson in his versatility and firepower. One night, he might drop 25 points — the next, dish up double-digit assists. His only weak spot is his propensity to take godawful outside shots. Johnson hit just 25 of his 90 3-point attempts, one of the worst performances in the WAC among starting guards. Memo to Armon: when you’re downtown, let someone else take the shot. Please.

Non-conference degree of difficulty: 5 — Credit where credit’s due, Nevada has the cojones to play the defending national champions on the road. In a brutal three-day stretch, the Wolf Pack will visit 2009 Colonial champ VCU and 2009 NCAA champ North Carolina. Throw in neutral-site games against Mountain West power BYU and Nebraska or Tulsa and you have the toughest non-con slate of any team in the WAC, by far.

Fun fact: Nevada has had more success in the NCAA Tournament than any other current WAC member — since joining the conference in 2004, they’ve been to the Big Dance four times, including three first-round wins and a 2004 run to the Sweet 16.

Key games: Nov. 29 @ North Carolina, Dec. 28 vs. Portland, Jan. 13 vs. Utah State, Feb. 10 @ Idaho

Predicted record: 18-12 (9-7 WAC)

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Preseason polls pick Idaho hoops fourth in the WAC

20 Oct

The Western Athletic Conference’s preseason men’s and women’s basketball polls have been released, and the Idaho Vandals were picked fourth across the board.

Men’s basketball coaches’ poll:

  1. Utah State (8)
  2. Nevada (1)
  3. New Mexico State
  4. Idaho
  5. Louisiana Tech
  6. Fresno State
  7. Boise State
  8. Hawaii
  9. San Jose State

Men’s basketball media poll:

  1. Utah State (15)
  2. Nevada (12)
  3. New Mexico State (6)
  4. Idaho
  5. Boise State
  6. Louisiana Tech
  7. Fresno State
  8. San Jose State (1)
  9. Hawaii

Let it be known that we cast a ballot for Idaho in first place, but for whatever reason our ballot wasn’t received.

The women’s hoops polls can be found below the fold.

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WAC preview: #5 Louisiana Tech has the weapons to contend

19 Oct

We continue our WAC men’s basketball preview with a look at #5 Louisiana Tech.

Team: #5 Louisiana Tech

Coach: Kerry Rupp, third season (21-42)

Last year’s record: 15-18 (6-10 WAC, T-6th)

Returning starters: three (C Magnum Rolle, G Kyle Gibson, G Jamel Guyton)

Key losses: G James Loe

Key newcomers: G DeAndre Brown, F Darius Redding

Why they’re here: With three proven double-digit scoring threats spread around the court, the Bulldogs have more than enough firepower to keep up in what should be a high-scoring, fast-paced Western Athletic Conference season. They upset Idaho in the WAC Tournament quarterfinals last year and fell just short of taking down Nevada in the semis. Returning five of their top six scorers, Louisiana Tech will be a very dangerous team this year.

There are two key issues the Bulldogs need to solve, though. One is their lack of effective point guard play. Louisiana Tech had the lowest assist total of any team in the conference last year, averaging just over 10 per game, and no player averaged more than 2.7. More than the numbers, the floor leadership was missing. The second (and probably related) issue is inconsistency. The Bulldogs were the WAC’s most schizophrenic team, finding a way to beat Nevada on their home floor but also losing ugly games to D-I transitional Seattle U. and even D-II Alaska-Anchorage.

Coach Kerry Rupp hopes the addition of juco All-Star point guard DeAndre Brown will solve the first problem — but it’s going to be down to his coaching and his players to solve the second. The pieces may all be there for a run into the top of the conference, but we’re not sold that Rupp can fit them all together in time to keep up with the WAC’s upper echelon.

Why they could finish higher: If DeAndre Brown can make the successful jump up from juco to Division I without the benefit of a redshirt season, his talent at the 1-guard slot should prove game-changing for the Bulldogs. With an undisputed floor leader dishing the rock to playmakers like Kyle Gibson and a bigger, stronger Magnum Rolle pulling down a double-double every night, there’s potential for La. Tech to make a run for the WAC Tournament title.

Why they could finish lower: Despite the presence of three solid double-digit scoring threats, the Bulldogs still finished last in the conference in scoring. La. Tech’s underwhelming bench was part of the problem, but the Bulldog starters deserve blame as well. Jamel Guyton shot an abysmal 38 percent last year, one of the worst shooting performances from any WAC starter. The Bulldogs’ combined shooting percentage of .436 put them firmly in the conference’s bottom third. Either La. Tech learns to shoot, or they’ll struggle for traction again this year.

Most Valuable Player: G Kyle Gibson (16.1 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 2.7 apg) — Louisiana Tech’s all-around star, Gibson was also the most consistent performer on a team marked by inconsistency. Only four times in 16 conference games did he fail to reach the double-digit mark, and he came on strong in the season’s final weeks to record four consecutive 20+ point performances, including upsets of Boise State and Idaho.

Most Important Player: C Magnum Rolle (12.2 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 1.7 bpg) — As goes Rolle, may go the Bulldogs’ hopes this season. The bottom line? He must find a way to be consistent. As Parsing the WAC’s Kevin McCarthy expertly broke down, Rolle was alternately capable of going off for 25 points and 12 boards — or imploding for two points, two boards and four fouls. Those are off nights La. Tech simply can’t afford, particularly from a inside man who has the talent to own the paint.

Non-conference degree of difficulty: 2 — The Bulldogs won’t play a single team with an RPI higher than Arizona’s 62, and most of the schedule is far worse. Rupp is clearly trying to kindle local rivalries and control travel costs by scheduling games against Louisiana-Monroe, McNeese State and Centenary — but all three squads lost at least 20 games last year. Ouch. Booking a home-and-home series with a 10-win Texas-Pan American team is the final insult.

Fun fact: Among WAC teams, only Idaho has a longer tournament drought than Louisiana Tech. The Bulldogs were a power in the Southland and American South conferences in the mid to late 1980s, but haven’t made the Big Dance since 1991.

Key games: Nov. 21 @ New Mexico, Dec. 9 @ Arizona, Jan. 2 vs. Nevada, Jan. 30 vs. New Mexico State

Predicted record: 16-15 (8-8 WAC)

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WAC preview: #6 Fresno State depending on a youthful lineup

16 Oct

We continue our WAC men’s basketball preview with a look at #6 Fresno State.

Team: #6 Fresno State

Coach: Steve Cleveland, fifth season (63-63)

Last year’s record: 13-21 (3-13 WAC, 9th)

Returning starters: Three (G/F Paul George, F Sylvester Seay, F Nedeljko Golubovic)

Key losses: G Dwight O’Neil, G Bryce Cartwright

Key newcomers: C Greg Smith, G Steven Shepp

Why they’re here: Stuck last year in the very depths of the conference basement, Fresno State is poised to leap at least into the WAC’s middle tier — and perhaps higher. This season’s Bulldog squad is loaded with young talent inside and outside. Coach Steve Cleveland and his team will be hungry to prove its last-place finish last year was nothing more than a one-year aberration for a program that’s regularly mixed it up at the top of the conference.

Returning are standouts Paul George and Sylvester Seay, who combined to average nearly 30 points per game. The addition of prep star Greg Smith gives the Bulldogs the WAC’s best freshman recruit and JC transfer point guard Steven Shepp fills what had been a gaping hole in Fresno State’s roster. Perhaps the only question mark on the projected starting five is shooting guard Mychal Ladd, whose production and efficiency need to rise.

Fresno State is going to be relying heavily on freshmen and a couple JC transfers to fill in the gaps and spell the starters. None of the Bulldogs’ returning reserves did much of anything last year — combined, they contributed all of 6.6 points per game. Like the Vandals last year, Fresno State’s starting five will have to shoulder a heavy burden and if they falter or get hurt, all bets are off for a Bulldog resurgence.

Why they could finish higher: There’s no shortage of talent in the WAC’s Central Valley outpost this year, and the separation in midpack isn’t great. Particularly if Shepp pans out, the opportunity is there for the Bulldogs to climb into the conference’s top third. A run at the title is unlikely this year, but an Idaho-like laughingstock-to-contender rise would give Fresno State a solid foundation for 2010-11.

Why they could finish lower: The Bulldogs ranked among the bottom third of the conference in both scoring and percentage defense and ended the season with a conference-worst scoring margin of -2.1. With high-scoring run-and-gun offenses looking like the norm in the WAC this season, that doesn’t bode well. If Cleveland can’t fix Fresno State’s defense, the Bulldogs aren’t going to make much of an improvement.

Most Valuable Player: Paul George (14.3 ppg, 1.9 apg, 6.2 rpg) — One of the NCAA’s best freshmen last year, George promises to be even more exciting to watch this year. The versatile swingman has the 6-8 size to play in the post, combined with the agility and shooting prowess of a guard. With better leadership at point guard and a season of experience, George will be a tough man for any WAC defender to guard.

Most Important Player: Steven Shepp (7.4 ppg, 5.8 apg) — One big reason for the Bulldogs’ poor season: ineffective play from point guard Bryce Cartwright. Neither particularly proficient at scoring or dishing, Cartwright’s out the door and Shepp is a shoo-in to take his place. If Shepp can translate his JC prowess into the WAC (no mean feat given the point guard quality in the conference) Fresno State should have a solid season.

Non-conference degree of difficulty: 3 — For the WAC, the Bulldogs are taking on a solid schedule. Sure, they’ve got a cupcake or two in the form of Cal State-Bakersfield and Pepperdine, but they also face BYU, San Diego State and a 30-win North Dakota State squad. Bonus points are earned for traveling to Corvallis to face a resurgent Oregon State program.

Fun fact: The Bulldogs had just one losing season from 1996 to 2007 and earned consecutive 9-seeds to the Big Dance in 2000 and 2001. But the wheels fell off after that, as Fresno State has lost 19 and 21 games in each of the last two years.

Key games: Dec. 12 vs. BYU; Dec. 23 @ Oregon State; Jan. 2 vs. Boise State; Feb. 17 @ Nevada

Predicted record: 15-16 (7-9 WAC)

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WAC preview: #7 Boise State lacks star power, scoring threats

15 Oct

Team: #7 Boise State

Coach: Greg Graham, eighth season (127-95)

Last year’s record: 19-13 (9-7 WAC, T-3rd)

Returning starters: Four (C Kurt Cunningham, F Paul Noonan, F Ike Okoye, G Anthony Thomas)

Key losses: F Mark Sanchez, G Jamar Greene, G Aaron Garner

Key newcomers: F Sam Hicks, F Daequon Montreal, G Westly Perryman

Why they’re here: A glaring lack of star power. The Broncos are going to desperately miss graduating senior forward Mark Sanchez. Without him, the Broncos are lacking more than their leading scorer. Sanchez was Boise State’s only reliable go-to guy when a clutch bucket or big stop was needed.

The rest of the squad is made up of more-or-less role players, all with talent but also with significant weaknesses. Case in point: starting point guard Anthony Thomas gained infamy by guaranteeing victory at home over the Vandals, only to go 3-of-7 from the floor and put up a negative assist-to-turnover ratio in the Broncos’ stunning defeat. Whatever the opposite of clutch is, that’s Thomas.

Greg Graham is bringing in some decent talent in the form of Sam Hicks and Daequon Montreal, but in a season where the WAC competition is ridiculously deep and talented, just being “decent” won’t cut it. Boise State needs to find itself a star, and quickly, or else the 2008 NCAA Tournament bid will seem like a distant memory.

Why they could finish higher: The Broncos have been known to overachieve, and Greg Graham might have a few rabbits to pull out of hats. Montreal was a star at the JC level, and if he can translate that into success in mid-major Division I hoops, maybe Boise State will have found its go-to shooter. That’s a pretty big if, however, because the level of competition and court intensity is exponentially greater.

Why they could finish lower: There’s potential for an epic meltdown in Boise. Just two years removed from an NCAA berth, a Bronco nosedive to the WAC’s lower tier could provoke infighting, recrimination and a total team chemistry failure. Poor results could see the 12,000-seat Big Burrito go largely empty on gameday, further deepening the despair in Bronco country.

Most Valuable Player: Kurt Cunningham (10.2 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 1.2 apg) — With Sanchez’s consistent production gone, Cunningham is the most likely candidate to step up, particularly on the boards. Of particular note is Cunningham’s stellar shooting — leading the WAC, far and away, by making an amazing 67.3 percent of his shots. That might drop a bit this year if he takes more shots, but his talent is real.

Most Important Player: Paul Noonan (10.0 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 1.9 apg) — This guy could be one of the WAC’s best shooters, if only he wasn’t in love with a 3-point shot he just doesn’t have. Inside the arc, Noonan shot 49-for-91, a quality 53.8 percent. But he made just 54 of 160 3-point attempts — an awful 33.8 percent — and he was even worse in WAC play. Smarter shooting from Noonan would really help the Broncos this year.

Non-conference degree of difficulty: 2 — Boise State will take on a couple decent road opponents early, visiting the Big 10’s Illinois and the Mountain West’s Wyoming. After that, however, things drop off quite a bit. With the exception of a revenge game against a Portland State squad that embarrassed them in last year’s ESPNU BracketBusters, the remainder of the Broncos’ schedule features creampuffs like Houston Baptist and Cal State-Bakersfield.

Fun fact: The Broncos were swept by Idaho in their intra-state rivalry series last season for the first time since 1998.

Key games: Nov. 21 @ Wyoming; Dec. 5 @ Illinois; Jan. 9 vs. New Mexico State; Feb. 6 vs. Idaho

Predicted record: 14-16 (6-10 WAC)

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WAC preview: #8 San Jose State likely to underachieve again

14 Oct

We continue our WAC men’s basketball preview with a look at #8 San Jose State.

Team: #8 San Jose State

Coach: George Nessman, fifth season (37-86)

Last year’s record: 13-17 (6-10 WAC, T-6th)

Returning starters: Four (G Adrian Oliver, F C.J. Webster, PG Justin Graham, C Chris Oakes)

Key losses: F Tim Pierce, G DaShawn Wright

Key newcomers: G Aalim Moor, G Chris Jones, G/F Anthony Dixon

Why they’re here: The Spartans are tough to figure. Every year they have the talent to compete among the best in the WAC. Adrian Oliver is one of the conference’s most dangerous scorers and C.J. Webster and Chris Oakes form a quality frontcourt. They’ve got solid recruits coming in, like Chris Jones and Aalim Moor.

But something’s missing in San Jose. They’ve underachieved every year under coach George Nessman. Even with Oliver’s added spark in the backcourt, the Spartans lost more than they won down the stretch. A suspect defense (SJSU allows its opponents a WAC-worst shooting percentage of .441) is one likely culprit. So is their injury-plagued roster — several key players, including Oliver, were lost for one or more games in the season’s waning weeks.

There’s no obvious reason this team shouldn’t be capable of doing damage. Is it the coaching? A lack of chemistry? Whatever it may be, we can’t justify putting San Jose any higher until they prove something on the hardwood — particularly in a year when just about every other team in the WAC is stepping it up.

Why they could finish higher: San Jose’s loaded recruiting class might pay dividends early. If Oliver continues his stellar play in his first full season with the Spartans and the newcomers find ways to contribute, SJSU could contend for another mid-pack finish and a decent seeding come March.

Why they could finish lower: Tim Pierce’s absence will be sorely felt, even if the Spartans won’t miss his horrific shooting percentage. If Pierce’s consistent production in the paint (11.6 ppg, 5.4 rpg) can’t be replaced, San Jose State will be hard-pressed to fend off the Rainbow Warriors for the WAC Tournament’s last bid.

Most Valuable Player: Adrian Oliver (17.1 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 2.1 apg) — Providing an instant threat for the Spartans’ offense upon joining the team at midseason, Oliver helped keep San Jose out of the bottom of the conference. His stats were among the best in the league, and as the Spartans’ only solid backcourt scoring threat he needs to keep them that way.

Most Important Player: C.J. Webster (12.0 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 2.2 apg) — On the strength of their solid rebounding last year, the Spartans often kept themselves in games that they shouldn’t have been in. With Pierce gone, Webster needs to pick up some of that slack — and may be able to go for consistent nightly double-doubles if he can.

Non-conference degree of difficulty: 4 — No one can call the Spartans cowards. Going on the road to Washington, the defending Pac-10 champs, gives SJSU some serious cred here. They’ll also face WCC powerhouse St. Mary’s and a quality Pacific squad at home.

Fun fact: Last year, the Spartans’ roster included the shortest player in Division I basketball: 5-3 guard Lance Olivier.

Key games: Nov. 20 @ Washington; Nov. 30 vs. St. Mary’s; Feb. 27 vs. Fresno State; March 6 @ Boise State

Predicted record: 12-19 (5-11 WAC)

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Hoops Preview 2009-10: The WAC’s Best Freshmen

13 Oct

Rounding out our preseason class rundowns, we’ve got our selections for the Western Athletic Conference’s best freshmen. Our sophomorejunior and senior picks are also available.

Again, picks are based positionally. We’ve selected only a first team and honorable mentions as it’s tough to judge the freshmen below that threshold. Players are judged on the basis of overall performance and potential team impact.

First team:

G: Chris Jones, San Jose State

In what is a fairly thin freshman guard crop in the WAC this year, the Spartans have found two of the best. Jones, a Rivals two-star selection, originally committed to Fresno State but spent a year at a prep academy to boost his academics. The Bulldogs went elsewhere — their loss is San Jose’s gain. A defensive specialist, the Spartans can well put Jones’ talents to use, as they were one of the conference’s worst outfits on the defensive end last year.

G: Aalim Moor, San Jose State

Nominated for CalHiSports’ All-State team, Moor (another Rivals two-star selection) led St. Mary’s High to the California Division IV title game in his junior year. As a prepster, Moor played mainly as a pure point guard, but the recruiting rap says he has serious offensive potential as well. He may not see much playing time behind the Spartans’ starting point guard, Justin Graham, but depth at the 1 spot is never a bad thing to have. Given San Jose State’s turnover woes, having another soft-touch ball-handler will make coach George Nessman happy, too.

F: Corey Stern, Idaho

A huge get for coach Don Verlin’s rebuilding project, Stern is the best freshman recruit landed at Idaho in many years. A Rivals three-star selection, he turned down offers from Colorado, Wyoming, USF and TCU in favor of joining the Vandals. Rated one of Washington’s top-20 prospects, Stern helped lead Rainier Beach High to a Washington 3A State Tournament appearance in his senior year, averaging 13 points, 12 rebounds and 4.5 blocks per game. For an Idaho squad that was one of the conference’s worst on the glass last season, Stern could contribute big right out of the gate.

F: B.J. West, New Mexico State

With Troy Gillenwater and Wendell McKines down for at least the non-conference season (and perhaps longer) because of academic issues, West will have to step up bigtime for the Newmags not to have a letdown early in the season. Leading his prep academy squad to a national championship and his high school squad to a Louisiana state title, West clearly has the talent to succeed in the WAC. But he’s going to be thrown straight into New Mexico State’s post mix, squaring off against players like Luke Babbitt, Magnum Rolle and Marvin Jefferson who won’t give him any margin for error.

C: Greg Smith, Fresno State

A Rivals four-star selection (the only such player to land on a WAC squad this year), Smith will provide big size inside for a Bulldog squad that could use a replacement for Dwight O’Neil. The recruiting read on him says he’s more developed defensively than offensively at this point, but that’s precisely where Fresno State could use him. The Bulldogs ranked near the bottom of the WAC in almost every defensive statistic, so Smith’s talents can be put to use right away.

Honorable mentions: Sam Hicks, BSU; Jerry Brown, FSU; Darius Redding, LTU; Joe Kammerer, UI; Tyrone White, USU

WAC preview: #9 Hawaii is the conference’s basket case

12 Oct

With this post, we begin our preview countdown through the 2009-10 Western Athletic Conference men’s basketball field.

Team: #9 Hawaii

Coach: Bob Nash, third season (24-36)

Last year’s record: 13-17 (5-11 WAC, 8th)

Returning starters: Four (F Roderick Flemings, F Bill Amis, F Adhar Mayen, C Paul Campbell)

Key losses: G Kareem Nitoto, G Lasha Parghalava

Key newcomers: G Dwain Williams, G Zane Johnson

Why they’re here: The Rainbow Warriors have struggled to gain any traction under third-year coach Bob Nash. Quite simply, they can’t consistently score the points necessary to compete in the run-and-gun Western Athletic Conference. Only Louisiana Tech put fewer points on the scoreboard last season. Put the blame on a roster full of “shooters” who can’t — the Rainbow Warriors took the booby prize for worst shooting percentage in the league last year, and were an abysmal 28.3 percent from 3-point land.

Nash will be depending on a group of talented Division I transfers to beef up his squad’s scoring, particularly in the backcourt. It’s questionable whether Nash can put all those parts together, though, in a year when the WAC competition wont be taking any prisoners. The wimpy non-conference schedule may create false hopes that can’t be fulfilled come conference season.

This year, in a cost-cutting move, the WAC has dumped the tournament’s 8-9 seed play-in game. For the regular season’s last-place finisher, that means it’s game over. Unfortunately for the Rainbow Warriors, they will likely be the lonely team not making the mid-March trip to Reno.

Why they could finish higher: Nash is on the hot seat, and he knows it. Another season in the WAC’s basement and he’s probably out the door. Desperate coaches can sometimes pull off amazing feats of rejuvenation. There’s not a whole lot of separation in the WAC’s bottom tier, so if Hawaii’s backcourt transfers pan out, they could at least get themselves into a conference tournament seed.

Most Valuable Player: Roderick Flemings (16.6 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 36.0 mpg) — The WAC’s playing-time leader and the Rainbow Warriors’ workhorse, Flemings’ play singlehandedly kept Hawaii from sinking any further than it did. He needs to stop shooting the trey, though. From inside the arc, he’s a near-50-percent shooter. But from downtown, where he took 20 percent of his shots, he shoots just 31 percent. Those are wasted possessions.

Most Important Player: Dwain Williams — The sharpshooting Providence transfer will be expected to contribute big right away, and he’ll have to do so if the Rainbow Warriors want to go anywhere in a deep, talented WAC.

Non-conference degree of difficulty (scale of 1-5): 1 — OK, so they do play BYU and College of Charleston, but other than that, Hawaii’s schedule is chock-full of sweet, tasty cupcakes like McNeese State, Southern Utah and Northwestern State. An extra bonus deduction for almost never going on the road.

Fun fact: Thanks to exempt preseason tournaments, the Rainbow Warriors play only one non-conference game off their home floor — at UC Irvine of the Big West.

Key games: Nov. 20 vs. BYU; Jan. 2 vs. Idaho; Jan. 28 @ San Jose State; March 4 @ Boise State

Predicted record: 12-17 (4-12 WAC)
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Hoops Preview 2009-10: Preseason All-WAC Team

12 Oct

Vandal Nation’s preseason media poll ballot has been submitted, so without further ado, here’s our picks for the Western Athletic Conference’s best players this season.

WAC Player of the Year:

Mac Hopson, Idaho
If the Vandals live up to their billing, Mac’s a shoo-in for this honor. He’s without question the best all-around player in the conference, capable of shooting, dishing, rebounding and defending with equal fervor. Surrounded by a deeper, more experienced cast and paired off in the backcourt with a premiere shooting guard, Hopson has all the tools he needs to lead Idaho to its best season in decades.

WAC Newcomer of the Year:

Steffan Johnson, Idaho
It’s not often that an all-conference performer transfers to another school, so Idaho scored a coup by picking up Johnson. A First Team All-Big West selection for Pacific in 2007-08, Johnson racked up 14.5 points and 4.9 assists per game while shooting 46 percent from the floor and 41 percent from beyond the arc. He’ll be an instant second scoring threat for the Vandals at a position that didn’t produce many points last year. Together with Hopson, he’ll create arguably the WAC’s best backcourt.

All-WAC Team:

Luke Babbitt, Nevada — a Player of the Year candidate if the Wolf Pack overachieve.

Jahmar Young, New Mexico State — can’t leave the WAC’s leading scorer off this list.

Magnum Rolle, Louisiana Tech — the best pure big man in the conference.

Jared Quayle, Utah State — not quite the scorer that Mac Hopson is, but darn close.


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