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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.

Starters:

  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.

Bench:

  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.

Redshirts:

  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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