With his flowing locks and dead-eye shooting, Jeff Ledbetter has had no problem at all making the transition from sunny Southern California to the wintry Idaho Palouse. The junior guard, who hails from Irvine, Calif., where he starred for the Irvine Valley Lasers, wasted no time establishing himself as one of the Vandals’ top threats from downtown.
In his first Division I game, on the road at Utah, Ledbetter exploded off the bench for 16 points on 5-for-7 shooting, and nailed four of six shots from beyond the arc. Those buckets were key to the Vandals’ season-opening 94-87 upset of the defending Mountain West Conference champion Utes.
While Ledbetter has not had a big-numbers night like that since, as coach Don Verlin plays with lineups and rotations, in virtually every game he’s provided a spark or forced defenders to take notice.
Take Sunday night’s victory over #25 Portland, for example. Jeff played a key role in a quick 8-0 Idaho run midway through the first half that broke the back of the visiting Pilots.
First, he dished to a wide-open Marcus Lawrence, who drilled the Vandals’ first 3-pointer of the afternoon. Just 57 seconds later, it was Ledbetter’s turn to score. Finding himself in position at the top of the key, Jeff pump-faked, stepped back and canned a contested trey. It was his only field goal of the night, but was it ever a big one.
Plus, he’s already grabbed a share of one honor: best hair in the WAC.
We sat down with Jeff last week to find out why he chose Idaho, how he’s developing as a student and an athlete and where he hopes the Vandals will go this season.
How did you get your start in basketball?
As far back as I can remember, my dad grew up playing basketball and my two brothers were playing, so a ball was put in my hands from day one.
I went to Orange Lutheran, and high school ball was a lot of fun. We had a great crowd, it was great to play in front of your friends. We never won CIF or state or anything but it was a fun time and a really good learning experience. It was the perfect school for me to go to.
Tell us about your career at Irvine Valley, and how did you end up with the Vandals?
I ended up going there after high school, I had a shoulder injury so I sat out and put on a bunch of weight, like 20 or 30 pounds. I knew I had to work hard, because my ultimate goal was to get to D-I.
My teammate, Kashif Watson, came up here first. I heard nothing but good things about Idaho and Coach Verlin and everyone, so I made it my mission to get up here too.
Moscow must have been quite a change!
Yeah, it was a lot different. I came out here in the summertime and didn’t know what cold meant, but I loved it from my first visit. All the guys chill together and we all get along, the chemistry was there from the start. I like having the college environment, too. I wanted to get away from California, experience something diferent, experience the seasons and the college town. As soon as I got here, I knew I wanted to play here.
Did you get any other offers?
There were a couple that I almost signed with after my freshman year, because Idaho didn’t have any scholarships available. But I decided to go back and play another year at Irvine. I didn’t want to rush into something because it’s a big decision to decide where you want to play. After that, Verlin called me up and it worked out how I wanted it to.
How do you think you’re developing as a player?
You know, I put on a lot of size in juco and that helped me a lot, getting in the weight room. You have to have strength to play at this level. A lot of is mental, though — you have to keep working, stay humble and never be satisfied with the way you are.
If you think you can always play better, you’ll keep getting better. That’s how we’ll have success this year. We are going to be the hardest-working team in the WAC.
What does it mean to put that Idaho uniform on and know you’re playing Division I?
It means a lot. That’s what happens when you work hard — you can do whatever you want. I had a few setbacks with injuries that made it really difficult. I spent a lot of time sitting out and wondering if my career was over and my dreams were done.
But my family and my close friends got me through those times. They kept pushing me to get back in there. Without them, I wouldn’t have made it.
You made a strong first impression in that Utah game.
It was fun, it was just fun to get out there and play. My adrenaline was rushing, I don’t even remember how I made those shots. It was fun to be with this group of guys, we played together, we all rallied together and won as a team. It wasn’t me, it was a team effort.
Talk about playing on a team that has as many weapons as the Vandals.
It’s great to have all those guys who can put the ball in the hoop, and that’s why we’re so excited. There’s no pressure. We don’t have a guy who every night out has to score 20. It’s a fun way to play.
What’s it like to play for Don Verlin?
It’s fun, he likes us to get out and run the floor. It’s an exciting style of basketball. Running our offense is still a work in progress, because of all the timing things, that usually lags behind. Defense is all about effort, and as long as we give 100 percent the defense will be there. The better we play on defense, the more we get out into transition and get those easy opportunities.
How do you like the university and living in Moscow?
It’s different. It’s small and there’s not a lot of distractions, which is good. There’s school, basketball and that’s about it, which keeps you focused and working hard. Wintertime is here and that’s a big change, but I love it. I’m majoring in general studies and should get my degree in two years.
What are you hoping to do after you finish your career here?
I’d love to play professional ball, obviously, you know, ride it out as long as you can. That’s everyone’s dream here. As long as you put in 100 percent, you can’t regret anything, because you can always say you tried your hardest and gave it your best shot. If it doesn’t work out, then it doesn’t. If it does, thank God.
There’s a special feeling about this year, isn’t there, throughout the team?
There is, really. Everyone on this team has that feeling. There’s something about it, and it all starts back in the offseason. We worked so hard every day in the summer, starting at 6 a.m. for conditioning. The strength coaches kicked our butts, and that’s going to pay off. Everyone’s hungry and everyone is putting team first and not their stats first. If we do that, the stats and the wins will come.
Team chemistry can be tough to develop, but it doesn’t seem to be an issue for you guys.
We’re family and we all stick together. On weekends we stick together, at nights we stick together, we do a lot of things together. That shows on the court, because it doesn’t matter who’s out there, everyone’s into it. The starters, the bench, everyone’s supporting each other. There’s no selfishness on this team and that’s what’s going to take us a long way.
As a special bonus, here’s a complete raw video version of our interview with Jeff.