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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.