Here’s the unedited version of my Argonaut game preview for tomorrow’s season-opening hoops game between Idaho and Utah. Remember, we’ll have Vandal Nation Live coverage starting at 5:30 p.m. Pacific.
For the Idaho Vandals, the time for practice, preparation and no-stats exhibition blowouts is over. Starting tomorrow in Salt Lake City, every game counts as the Vandals open their season with realistic hopes of making the NCAA Tournament for the first time in two decades.
Idaho faces a true test on the hardwood of the Huntsman Center, as they take on the Mountain West Conference’s Utah Utes at 7 p.m. Mountain, 6 p.m. Pacific. That begins a back-to-back road trip for the Vandals, as they’ll go from Utah to Houston to play the Texas Southern Tigers on Sunday.
Playing against the Utes to open the season will be no easy task. Led by standout center and conference Player of the Year Luke Nevill, Utah won the conference tournament and made the NCAA Tournament last year.
Nevill may be lost to graduation, but the Utes still feature a starting lineup packed with big, talented players. How big? Try 7-3 starting center David Foster and 6-11 starting forward Kim Tillie.
“Even their point guard is 6-5,” Idaho coach Don Verlin said, with a hint of incredulousness in his voice. “That size mismatch is going to give us some problems around the basket and that’s a huge concern in this game.”
The flipside of that coin: big often means slow. An uptempo offense has been in the cards for the Vandals all summer long, now that Verlin has the depth on the bench to keep fresh legs in the game. If the Vandals’ highly-athletic lineup plays together and makes their shots, they may be able to run the Runnin’ Utes right off their own home floor. At least, that’s what Verlin and his team are hoping.
“We’re more athletic than them, so we’re going to have to use that to our advantage,” point guard Mac Hopson said. “They’ve got the size, we’ve got the speed, whoever takes that to the next level will probably win — and we’re looking to win.”
Another point in the Vandals’ favor: experience. All five of the Utes’ top-five scorers last year were seniors and all have graduated — forcing Utah coach Jim Boylen to count on last year’s role-players making a serious step up. By contrast, Idaho boasts four seniors in its starting five, and all five were in the program last season.
“Yeah, I really think that’ll be an edge for us,” Hopson said. “Having at least one year in the system is huge.”
The Vandals’ starting lineup will be anchored by the 6-2 senior Hopson at the point guard position, as befits the team’s undisputed leader.
Slotting in at shooting guard will be 6-1 senior Steffan Johnson, a transfer out of Pacific who was First Team All-Big West as a junior for the Tigers. He’s equally comfortable firing 3-pointers or dishing up the rock, and will rotate into the point guard spot on occasion to relieve Hopson.
Returning on the wing is 6-4 senior Kashif Watson, who was the Vandals’ quiet glue last year and who consistently upped his game as the season went on.
In the power forward position, 6-8 sophomore Luiz Toledo will take charge defensively, after starring as a freshman for St. Francis Xavier.
At center, 6-9 senior Marvin Jefferson returns to anchor the Vandals’ post, and he’s looking to improve on his rebounding game.
Verlin confirmed he plans to run a six-guard rotation, bringing point guard Marcus Lawrence and shooting guards Shawn Henderson and Jeff Ledbetter off the bench in relief of the starting trio.
Toledo was perhaps the only surprise of the starting lineup, as he bumps last year’s leading rebounder, Brandon Wiley, to the bench. Verlin said the sophomore transfer from Canada’s St. Francis Xavier proved in practice to be what the Vandals need from the post: a quality defender and rebounder.
“Luiz is a good basketball player. He’s a bigger guy than Wiley, he’s probably our best post defender and if he plays up to the potential I think he has, will do a lot to make our team successful,” Verlin said. “The two things we most need to improve on from last year are rebounding and defense, and Toledo will make an impact right away on both of those points.”
Sunday afternoon’s game against Texas Southern will be a challenge, but certainly less of one than the Utes. Last season, the Vandals blew out the Tigers at home, 67-46, as the SWAC program would win just seven games all season. Still, Idaho struggled to win road games last year and Verlin knows that no game is a gimme.
“That game is their home opener, (the Tigers) played a really tough schedule last year and they’ll be hungry,” Verlin said. “It’s good for us to get that travel experience in because it’s a lot like what we’ll have to do in the WAC later in the season.”
As an assistant coach to Stew Morrill’s Colorado State and Utah State teams, Verlin figures he’s played Utah more than 20 times in his career. Only a few of those meetings have been happy ones, he said.
“I’ve sat in (Utah’s) locker room many a night and haven’t been on the good end of it very many nights,” Verlin said. “You have to have a good basketball team to go in there and win.”
But with three road games to open the season, the Vandals surely need to “go in there and win” at least a couple times to start things on the right track. Last year, Idaho struggled early as they came to grips with Verlin’s system, winning just one non-conference road game. This time, the Vandals believe, will be different.
“Last year we didn’t start good at all,” Hopson said. “We have to do better, we want to do better. This is our chance to get on a roll.”