|Four seniors, four stories|
Idaho recognizes four senior men's basketball players at tonight's final regular-season game against Seattle University, each with a different path to Moscow and each with a different Vandal story.
Travis Blackstock and Brandon Wiley are three-year Idaho team members, while Shawn Henderson and Jeff Ledbetter have been with the program for the last two seasons. They've all helped build a program that has established a number of significant firsts and milestones in the last three seasons.
"They've meant everything to this team," Idaho head coach Don Verlin said. "They're our leaders. They're guys who are experienced, and who have worked extremely hard to build this program into what it is today. It's a good, solid, hard-working program, and they've done the right things since they've been here."
The team's 49 wins in the last three seasons is the most since 1993-95, when the Vandals had 54 victories. They've tallied two wins over ranked opponents in Moscow, posted the team's two biggest WAC victories and earned Idaho its first postseason victory in more than 25 years.
More important than the team's accomplishments on the court, Verlin said, are their classroom pursuits. Wiley earned his degree in December, while Blackstock, Henderson and Ledbetter will all graduate from Idaho in May.
"When you recruit, you've got to find good character, and all of these guys have good character," Verlin said. "They've done a great job of building the foundation, and a great job of carrying it on."
Living a Lifelong Dream
Travis Blackstock grew up in a Vandal family. As long as he can remember, the Kuna Kaveman cheered for the University of Idaho and always saw himself there.
When he finally made it to campus, he tried out for the men's team as a true freshman, but didn't earn a spot. A couple years later, when Verlin became the coach and the team held another open tryout, Blackstock took another chance and found himself on the roster.
"Ever since I was a little kid, I've been a Vandal fan," Blackstock said. "To be able to come into this program and help out as much as I can has been a blessing."
A three-year team member, Blackstock has primarily done his work in the background, with the scout team and in practice. He has appeared in 17 games and scored 18 points in his college playing career, but most of his contributions have been on the practice floor, simulating each opponents' plays with the scout squad to help the team prepare for the week ahead.
It's an essential, unheralded duty, but one about which you'll never hear Blackstock complain.
"For game-prep purposes, it's crucial to have an idea of what you're going to go up against in the next game and it allows us to slow down the other team's best plays and players," he said. "I think it's a big part, and I love what I do."
Wiley, who has faced off with Blackstock many times in the last three seasons, can attest to his hard work and dedication.
"He shows us the looks and tries to simulate other players," Wiley said. "He does a pretty good job and even hits some tough shots, so that's a big key in preparing for the game the next day."
Blackstock said that simply wearing the uniform and being on the floor with the team have provided enough great memories, but being a Boise-area kid, it's not too difficult to guess which particular memory he can single out as his top moment.
"Scoring against Boise State at their place when we beat them by 24 last year," he says. "It was a jumper that hit the back of the rim, popped about 10 feet up in the air and went down in the bucket. I had a lot of family there - all Vandals - and it was just really cool."
The Do-It-All Guy
Shawn Henderson has never been the type to hide his feelings. He plays with his heart on his sleeve and his teammates feed off his emotion. Verlin calls him the team's top on-ball defender. He's second on the team in steals and assists, third in rebounding and fourth in scoring.
He has a knack for the big play. He calmly sank two free throws to give Idaho a one-point lead with 37 seconds to go in Thursday's win over Fresno State. He was 2-of-17 (.118) from 3-point range to start of the season, but he's shooting 43.2 percent from the arc in WAC play.
His defensive energy, Ledbetter says, gets the whole team going on that end of the floor.
"He's always giving you 100 percent," Ledbetter said of Henderson. "It carries over to the whole team and we feed off his emotion, especially on the defensive end."
That role was something Henderson saw he needed to embrace before the season even started.
"I think us being the type of guys we are, and the other guys being so much younger, we felt like it was our job to step up and lead this team," Henderson said of himself and his fellow seniors. "To make sure we came out and played as hard as we could in practice and in games."
Henderson said he was also thankful that he was able to finish his playing career near home. He came to Idaho from Renton, Wash., via North Idaho College. While there were offers to play elsewhere at the Division I level, Henderson said that the Coeur d'Alene and Moscow communities sealed the deal for him.
"I'm close to my family and friends," he said. "The people up here just made me feel comfortable, and that's what it's mainly about."
Henderson's top Idaho moment came on Feb. 9, when the Vandals upset No. 17 Utah State, ended the Aggies' WAC-record 25-game conference winning streak and gave USU its only conference loss to date.
"People are going to remember us being the only team to beat them in the last couple years, so that's a pretty big accomplishment," Henderson said.
The Offensive Spark Plug
What Henderson is on the defensive side of the ball, Jeff Ledbetter is to the Vandal offense. He's 11 made 3-pointers away from having the best long-range shooting season in Idaho history, and has emerged this season as one of the WAC's top offensive threats.
Ledbetter ranks eighth in the NCAA in 3-point field goal percentage, and he's 14th in 3-pointers made. He keyed the team's crucial road win over Nevada with a 6-of-7 performance from the arc, and a team season-high 25 points, in the 67-59 victory.
He's had seven games this season of five or more made 3-pointers and has led the team in scoring eight times this year. His 16-game stretch of consecutive double-digit scoring games ended on Tuesday with a nine-point outing.
"His energy keeps me energized, and my energy keeps other people excited," Henderson said of his counterpart. "We all just kind of feed off each other, and that's a big part of this team."
Ledbetter has come up with big shot after big shot for the Vandals this season, but none bigger than his late-game heroics at Cal State Bakersfield. With Idaho trailing by three and less than a minute to go in overtime, he stole the ball at halfcourt and took it for a layup to get within one. Then, with time winding down and Idaho trailing 77-75, Ledbetter fired off a buzzer-beating 3-pointer as time expired to give the Vandals the win.
"My teammates have found me in good places and I've been getting easy shots and had the confidence to know when I'm open like that, that I'm going to knock it in," Ledbetter said.
While the individual accolades are a nice bonus for Ledbetter, he said his ultimate goal is to do whatever it takes for the team to be successful, whether it's being the tide-turning long-range shooter, the opportunistic defender (he leads the team in steals), the distributor (he has 57 assists this season), or the cold-blooded finisher (he tied a school record with 26 consecutive made free throws and leads the WAC in conference-only free throw percentage).
"The main thing for me is to have a successful team and to win this WAC Tournament," he said. "I'd rather not hit another three-pointer this year if it meant we could win the WAC title."
The Source of Strength
Two years ago, Brandon Wiley helped lead Idaho to its first postseason victory since 1982. Last year, he didn't know if he'd even be able to play basketball again. This year, he's just happy to be out on the floor helping his team.
A back injury caused him great physical pain last season, but even worse was having to sit on the sidelines knowing that he couldn't help his teammates. After a successful surgery and months of rehab, a full-strength Wiley has given a boost to Idaho this year.
You might call him undersized at 6-6, but he's third in the WAC in blocked shots this season. You might call him small at 218 pounds, but he regularly out-muscles larger post players in the paint. His toughness is an important trait on a team that prides itself on its defense.
Wiley has at least one blocked shot in 12 of Idaho's last 13 games. In the 64-56 upset win over Utah State, he swatted four Aggie shots and grabbed three offensive rebounds. When the Vandals went into Eugene and beat Oregon, Wiley scored 14 points, grabbed six rebounds and swatted a career-high five shots.
Looking at an Idaho program that had won just 16 games in three previous seasons, combined, Wiley said the thing that convinced him to come to Moscow was Verlin's vision and conviction.
"When I got here, they all seemed like a tight-knit group and knew what they were doing in their philosophies and how they wanted things done, so it was an easy decision," Wiley said.
While the adversity created some difficult times, Wiley said that the team has worked through it and he's proud to be able to look back at the team's body of work over the last three seasons and see what has been accomplished.
"That's all the hard work. Everybody coming in and shooting, getting in the weight room and doing all the summer work," Wiley said. "There were some tough times, but it all paid off in the end."