In late February, the University of Idaho’s Cowan Spectrum will be transformed for a few days into the performance hall for the annual Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival. Up and coming musicians and iconic performers have used this stage to highlight the improvisation that defines jazz, creating melodies, changing chords – pushing the bounds of the music.
In another medium on the Cowan Spectrum court, basketball, Victor Sanders has been doing the same thing and doing it as well as a jazz legend.
Sanders, the No. 2 all-time scorer for the Vandals, is averaging 19.1 points a game as a senior after going for 20.9 as a junior. He hits both inside and outside, uses the structure of a game as the foundation for inventing ways to get to the basket.
In the same way a great jazz musician relies on knowledge of music as a guide to new places to take the art, Sanders processes an imposing depth of information coming at him in real time in a game and makes it the compass to point the way to expanding his ability as a scorer. Talking with Sanders about putting the ball in the basket provides the context to appreciate what he does all the more. He not only creates in the moment but thinks several moves ahead. For example: “I’ll jab at your lead foot. If you step back, that leads to a jump shot, which leads to a pump fake if I hit two.”
Watching Sanders in a game is to see an array of upper-body fakes and stutter steps, a low dribble and quick hands, an ability to change direction, change velocity and lean forward off his axis and recover as though he is controlled by a gyroscope. He sees more subtle angles to exploit than Euclid, the father of geometry. On a team full of good perimeter shooters, he is among the best, and his ability to draw back from a defender and either flip a floater over him or hammer home a dunk practically stings like an insult.
“You look at a lot of guys, they do cone drills, stationary ball handling, a lot of stationary stuff. I rarely do any of that. Cones don’t move. Real people do.” Sanders wants his game dynamic. “I like to keep teams guessing. Sometimes I surprise myself with the stuff I do.”
Most amazing, so much of this is intentional not reactionary. Sanders can tell you how and why he can do what he does. He plays a lot of video NBA 2K, testing potential new moves. “You can shoot a hundred shots without consequence, test every move so it’s game quality.”
On the court, “I pay attention to how people walk, their body language, how they talk to their teammates. A lot of being a scorer is being a predator not the prey.”
He says he has learned to cope with all types of defenders and defenses. Anymore, he sees double-teams every game. As teams have devoted more defenders to stopping him, he has adjusted his role with the Vandals to setting up teammates. In Idaho’s 66-64 win against Eastern Washington on Friday, the Eagles were determined to take Sanders out of Idaho’s offense, according to UI coach Don Verlin. Sanders scored only eight points, hitting just three of 13 shots from the floor. But operating as both a point guard and wing at various points in the game, the 6-5 Sanders grabbed eight rebounds and made nine assists. Verlin says her told Sanders “to go make basketball plays, and he did.”
If there is a crown jewel to Sanders’ game it is his ability to change speed in such exquisitely fine increments defenders don’t realize they have been set up until it is too late.
“I can go really fast and slow. Timing in basketball is everything,” he says.
“If you can go at somebody really fast and slow at the end, it’s easy. Your job is done.” For a defender trying to guard somebody who can go “from two (miles per hour) to 100 to 70, to 150, what can you do?” Sanders asks. “That’s just working on your game. Being in the game.”
Also, “you have to do what you’re comfortable with. Sometimes I’ll pull from the logo. ‘What is that?’ ” he says mimicking an opponent stunned by an impossibly long jump shot. “Well, that’s comfortable for me.
“Its’s about picking your spots and knowing your strengths. Every year I have tried to make a weakness into a strength.”
He has done this in ways not always directly related to physically playing the game. In his four years at Idaho, a lot of what Sanders is most proud of is a growing tough-mindedness, although he had plenty of that even before he came to Moscow. On his recruiting visit to the UI from Jefferson High School in Portland, he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.
Sanders says he was playing basketball three months after surgery. “I felt if I didn’t push myself to the limit I would never be the same player. I had to push myself to being uncomfortable.”
This was done, of course, without medical approval. “I didn’t tell anybody. I told them after the fact. Sometimes you’ve got to make your own decision.”
After starring in high school, Sanders saw his minutes greatly reduced as a freshman at Idaho.
“Scoring four points a game was humbling.
“A lot of people in that situation transfer. I looked in the mirror and said ‘this is not what I’m accustomed to. I’m going to do something about it.’ ”
As a sophomore, he improved his scoring average to 14 points a game. Following that season, he worked on becoming a team leader. As a junior and this year, while averaging nearly 20 points per game, Sanders has made a point of establishing himself and his team as winners.
“That’s where I’m at now,” he says. Against Sacramento State Feb. 3, Sanders got in early foul trouble and was also held to eight points. “I broke a 47-game double digit scoring streak. But we won by 23. I knew what the game was. Let whoever’s rocking rock.”
The consummate scorer has become the consummate teammate.
Verlin heralds this aspect of his star scorer’s development. Like a great jazz performer, Sanders has discovered what matters is not simply playing notes but making music.
“He’s been pretty special the last two-and-a-half years,” Verlin said of Sanders after the Vandals rolled Sacramento State. “That’s what he’s all about, winning.”