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Vandals’ Jeff Ledbetter enjoys his role as crowd’s villain

Idaho Vandals guard Jeff Ledbetter gestures to the crowd after hitting a 3-pointer. (Associated Press)
Idaho Vandals guard Jeff Ledbetter gestures to the crowd after hitting a 3-pointer. (Associated Press)

MOSCOW, Idaho – An afternoon practice in late February is over, and now the easy part begins for Jeff Ledbetter. Idaho men’s basketball coach Don Verlin tells his players to fan out across Memorial Gym’s creaky floor and make 100 free throws before leaving.

Most Vandals, stationed in pairs, see the shooting exercise as pure drudgery. For Ledbetter, it’s all about how efficiently he can end his day.

He doesn’t dribble before releasing the ball. He doesn’t bend his knees. He simply goes through the same hurried-but-smooth motion, over and over again, until he’s finished.

By this point in his career, Ledbetter has grown used to a few things – monotonous practice drills, coming off screens for 3-point looks, and perhaps most of all, being targeted by opposing fans.

As long as the Vandals are on the road, they can be sure Ledbetter will attract attention – usually the sort of attention players seek to avoid.

Sometimes the badgering is directed at his last name. Sometimes it’s directed at his hair. But usually it’s the senior shooting guard’s expressive behavior that irritates the other team’s crowd the most.

“Other fans, I think they mistake it for being cocky,” Ledbetter said. “But I’m just out there and I have a lot of confidence.”

When the 6-foot-3 sharpshooter arrived at Idaho last season, he immediately stuck out with his free-flowing, shoulder-length blond hair and vibrant on-the-court persona. Now Ledbetter’s hair is short, spiky and faintly resembles a Mohawk.

His game has also evolved – or at least dramatically progressed. Ledbetter is the Vandals’ leading scorer and the second-most prolific 3-point shooter in the Western Athletic Conference.

With fourth-seeded Idaho (18-12) preparing for the quarterfinals of the WAC tournament on Thursday, Ledbetter – a second-team all-conference selection – needs seven more 3-pointers to match Gordon Scott’s record for the most made in a single season by a Vandal.

“Jeff has just played really good from an offensive standpoint,” Verlin said. “He’s got some fire to him. And Jeff loves being here, and really embraces being a Vandal. I think that’s what’s made him so good this year.”

Ledbetter came to UI from Irvine (Calif.) Valley College, where former Vandal guard Kashif Watson played and the school’s coach, Jerry Hernandez, knows Verlin well. Watson left Irvine a year before Ledbetter, and he made sure to relate how much he enjoyed Idaho to his former JC teammate.

Once Ledbetter finished his official visit to Moscow, he had no doubt he wanted to spend the final two years of his college career in a location he was completely unfamiliar with, partly for the new experience.

“I knew coming in that this is what I wanted,” the southern California native said. “I was trying to get to a small town, get out of this big city and try something new. It’s what I expected.”

Since high school in Orange County, Ledbetter has embraced often being the most disliked player on the court during road games. He enjoys gyrating after making a 3, or putting three fingers from both hands in the air to celebrate.

This has the tendency to rub other teams and fans the wrong way – and it’s a major departure from his “chilled” demeanor, as teammate Landon Tatum puts it, away from basketball.

“Jeff is one of those players that feeds off the crowd,” Tatum said. “And when you’re playing with him, whenever he gets a couple 3s you can see him get fired up. And everybody just feeds off him, like there’s intensity to the game.”

Two weeks ago at Utah State, after Idaho had upset the Aggies in Moscow, fans brought a small bed sheet with one word scrawled on it: “Bed Wetter.” The Vandals found the sheet humorous, and Ledbetter said he’s heard the joke about his name so many times it has no effect on him.

“That’s been around since first grade,” he said. “I don’t respond to that.”

Ledbetter also doesn’t shy away from being called a 3-point specialist, a common label that’s followed him. This year 78 percent of his field-goal attempts have come from long range.

He’s learned to not stray too far from his primary skill set, which has served him well. Ledbetter buried a 3 at the buzzer in overtime to beat Cal State Bakersfield, and he hit two key 3s to help the Vandals topple Utah State.

“I mean, my strength is shooting so why not shoot the majority of my shots outside,” he said. “It’s (about) embracing your role and not doing too much.”

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