Team: #1 Idaho
Coach: Don Verlin, second season, (17-16)
Last year’s record: 17-16 (9-7 WAC, T-3rd)
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.
Why they could finish lower: The Vandals need to find a way to consistently win away from the friendly confines of the Cowan Spectrum. Last year it was a tale of two teams — 13-3 at home, 4-12 away. Merlin Verlin’s squad simply must improve that, not just a little but a lot. With the conference’s top tier bunched so tightly, one or two bad nights on the road — like last year’s blowout loss at Hawaii — will drop Idaho right out of the race for the WAC title.
Most Valuable Player: Mac Hopson (16.4 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 5.9 apg)— Nothing to debate here, Mac’s the engine that’s powered the Vandals to this point and there’s no reason to think he won’t get even better in his senior year. He’s one of just four players in the nation to record a “15-5-5″ average last year, along with such stars as Maryland’s Greivis Vasquez and Florida’s Nick Calathe. The addition of Johnson in the backcourt could lessen Hopson’s scoring — but it’ll open him up for more assists and ensure that foes can’t just double-team him. Plus, with Verlin implementing a fast-paced transition game, Mac will probably be shooting more anyway.
Most Important Player: Steffan Johnson (14.5 ppg, 4.9 apg, 1.5 spg) — If Johnson can maintain in the WAC the high level of play he showed in the Big West, the Vandals will be difficult to stop. He can potentially triple the scoring production of his predecessor at the 2-guard spot while having the versatility to spell Hopson at point guard. Most importantly, he and Mac have been seen to build great chemistry on the court, something often missing when a pair of point guards hit the hardwood together.
Non-conference degree of difficulty: 4 — Idaho is facing three conference champions, all of them on the road. Utah provides a key season-opening test, coupled with early visits to North Dakota State and Cal State-Northridge. There are a couple cupcakes, notably Sacramento State and Texas Southern. But add a trip across the border to the Pac-10’s Washington State and a home-and-home with Portland (a squad some are predicting will win the WCC) and you have the makings of one of the WAC’s stronger schedules.
Fun fact: The Vandals won nine WAC games last year — two more than the team had managed in its previous three WAC seasons combined.
Predicted record: 23-6 (12-4 WAC)