Johnson gives Vandals a shot in the arm
MOSCOW, Idaho – The question was asked and Steffan Johnson volunteered a faint, courteous smile. The latest high-profile University of Idaho men’s basketball transfer had heard this one before, apparently more times than he wanted to share.
How well will he and Mac Hopson fit on the court, considering they’ve spent their careers as point guards and have similar playing styles?
That’s a no-brainer, Johnson said.
Just look at last season, when all he could do was practice while sitting out after arriving from Pacific.
“It’s funny because last year nobody saw the practices,” Johnson said. “We had to battle every practice against each other. It was basically a war everyday. (Hopson) would get the best of me, I would get the best of him. That built a bond and a chemistry for each other to know that we were going to leave it out on the court no matter what.”
Hopson isn’t about to lose his starting point guard role that he flourished in last year while carrying the Vandals to their best campaign in a decade. Yet he won’t have to shoulder so much of the burden in the backcourt with the presence of Johnson, a ballyhooed newcomer who will shift to shooting guard.
The 6-foot-1 senior from Kent, Wash., averaged 10.1 points per game in three years at Pacific. Aside from giving the Vandals’ an instant scoring lift, Johnson is expected to furnish another layer of leadership for coach Don Verlin’s budding program.
The Vandals return four starters, but only three of them – Hopson, Kashif Watson and Marvin Jefferson – are guaranteed their spots atop the playing rotation. That speaks to Idaho’s newfound depth after infusing the roster with eight newcomers.
“There’s more competition in practice for starting positions, (for) everything,” Hopson said. “The depth is nice. I think that was what we were lacking last year. If we had had a bench like we have this year, I think we could have went further, won more games.”
Johnson headlines the list of newbies, but he’ll be far from the only impact player. Verlin and his staff spent the off-season addressing specific trouble spots from last season, when Idaho was the surprise of the Western Athletic Conference despite little depth and interior presence.
The deficiencies caused by roster upheaval before Verlin’s arrival meant the Vandals operated with a thin margin for error in 2008-09. Although they finished third in the WAC, the Vandals were last in rebounding margin and free-throw percentage and seventh in scoring.
Asked if it was surprising that the Vandals went 17-16 while being at the bottom of those statistical categories, Verlin said, “It really is. We won a ton of close games.”
The second-year coach appears comfortable using 11 or 12 players and flipping between lineups of varying sizes – another luxury that was unavailable last year.
In the paint, 6-foot-7 Luiz Toledo of Brazil and 6-10 redshirt freshman Kyle Barone should provide rebounding and athleticism beyond the 6-10 Jefferson, who will start at center.
The Vandals also will interchange parts on the perimeter. Johnson, UNLV transfer Marcus Lawrence, Jeff Ledbetter and Shawn Henderson – a former North Idaho College standout – all seem capable of logging significant minutes. They’ll play alongside Hopson, Watson and 3-point specialist Luciana de Souza.
The added backcourt numbers will give UI a chance to play at a much quicker tempo than last year, a style Verlin prefers. The depth also should help keep Idaho’s key weapons fresher for the stretch run.
While the media and league coaches voted the Vandals fourth in the WAC, Hopson said the team’s goals are much loftier.
“It’s a WAC title, it’s the NCAA tournament, it’s winning games in the NCAA tournament,” the senior said. “I think we can be that good. We think we can be that good if we listen to Coach V … and do what the (staff says).”