Idaho Expected to Compete for WAC Basketball Title

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MOSCOW, Idaho (AP) - The Idaho basketball team surprised fans with a winning record and third place finish in the Western Athletic Conference last season.

The Vandals look even stronger this season under second-year coach Don Verlin. The Vandals finished 17-16 last year, 9-7 in the WAC, the first winning season in a decade. They qualified for the tournament, beating Drake and losing to Pacific.

The Vandals have six players returning who played key rolls last year, including four starters, plus some solid newcomers who are expected to contribute immediately.

"Our team is bigger, stronger and faster and has more depth," Verlin said.

Guard Mac Hopson, an all-WAC selection last year, is back. He was fifth in the league with an average of 16.4 points per game, and led the league in assists at 5.8 per game.

"Mac Hopson wills his way to get it done," Verlin said. "He's as tough and hard-nosed a guard as I've ever been around."

Also back is guard Kashif Watson (10.3 ppg); forwards Luciano de Souza (8.5 ppg) and Brandon Wiley (5.6 rebounds per game, 57 percent shooting) and post player Marvin Jefferson (9.1 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 1.8 blocks).

The top newcomer is Steffan Johnson, a former all-Big West player at Pacific who transferred to Idaho for his senior year. Johnson averaged 10.1 points at Pacific and made 153 3-pointers.

"We are hoping he can carry some of the outside scoring load," Verlin said. "He needs to be a good player if the Vandals are going to be good."

The Vandals are also adding guard Marcus Lawrence, a transfer from UNLV, and forward Luiz Toledo, who averaged 13 points and 7 rebounds per game at a college in Canada. Transfer Jeff Ledbetter, who averaged 13 points at Irvine Valley Community College, is also expected to play a lot.

Verlin hopes the depth of this team allows the Vandals to run and score more.

"One of our weaknesses last year was our ability to score at a high level," he said. "We want to play fast and score more points and use our depth to our advantage."

Idaho may have caught its WAC rivals off-guard in the early going last year, when they beat Nevada in Reno in the first conference game. But the surprise wore off quickly, and the Vandals just kept improving, Verlin said.

"The second half of the league we had more home games," he said, and they won six of their final eight league games.

This season, the Vandals open at Utah and also play Washington State, Portland and North Dakota State in the non-conference schedule.